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"The old ark's a-moverin', moverin' along."
on 3 July 2006
For Maya Angelou, this line from an ancient spiritual epitomizes the civil rights struggle in 1957, a struggle in which she was intimately involved on many levels. Continuing the autobiography she started with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she reveals her personal life from 1957 - 1965, drawing the reader into the individual, human costs of segregation and detailing her passion and commitment to end it. It is her additional commitment to the welfare of her son, however, and her determination that he will become a man of honesty and principle that unites the several sections of this book and gives it heart.
Angelou had overcome a tormented childhood to become a singer/dancer in the show Porgy and Bess before semi-settling in California. In 1957, Angelou, now twenty-nine and a single mother with a twelve-year-old son, decides to move from California to New York. There she entertains singer Billie Holiday for four days (an unforgettable character sketch), just three months before Holiday's death, and meets Godfrey Cambridge, then a New York taxi driver. With him, she puts on a revue in Harlem to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Drawn into the orbit of prominent black entertainers and showbiz entrepreneurs during the show, she also meets civil rights leaders, and eventually becomes a regional coordinator for SCLC. Her acceptance as a member of the Harlem Writers Guild leads to the beginning of her writing career. Throughout this period, her son Guy is going to public school, where on one occasion he has problems as the only black child. When they move to a black neighborhood, he runs afoul of a violent black street gang. As Angelou deals with the big civil rights issues, Guy is in the streets dealing with the basic power struggles that underlie and complicate any struggle for justice.
Angelou is candid throughout her narrative, depicting people she meets "warts and all," but she is equally candid about her own actions, her sexual needs, and her impatience with formality and red tape. Her willingness to use her tongue as a rapier gives spice to the narrative and a picture of Angelou as a formidable adversary. When she "marries" Vusumzi Make, a South African Freedom Fighter, and, with her son, moves to Egypt and later to Ghana, she continues her work toward a better life for Africans, while remaining an anchor for her son. In this intimate memoir, Angelou provides insights into the universal civil rights struggle, while, at the same time providing a very human picture of one woman's home life during this tumultuous period of history. Mary Whipple