Autobiography can be stranger than fiction, more delightful in its telling and more inspiring in its tale. Maya Angelou’s first volume of autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was sheer delight. Its sassy, gritty, knock-kneed enchantment with the world in all its colours and its funny, marvelling evocation of childhood’s shape, sound and smell burst through the cage of black woman’s adversity. The book ended with 16-year-old Maya holding her newborn son in her arms, the world open and unsignposted before her — and readers wanting more.
In its sequel, Gather Together in My Name, Maya Angelou has lost none of her verve for life, and her almost physical enjoyment of the words that we chew and roll around in appreciation at their unpredictable prescience. But Gather Together in My Name is not simply more of the same. In spite of all the horrors encountered, the pellucid, spontaneous imagination of the younger Maya made the cage into a wide world of sunlight. The prison bars close in during adulthood: natural glee and the courage of hope press up against a difficult world and from their friction Angelou creates a more wisely exuberant self.
Angelou’s love of life turns a catalogue of horror into a tale of gutsy survival. The book opens on the war’s ending. After the first flush of victory, during which “everybody had soft little preparation-to-smile smiles on their faces” and “Race prejudice was dead”, America re-erects old familiar boundaries. Maya herself is 17 — “very old, embarrassingly young, with a son of two months” — and already intimate with a textured guilt, “my familiar, my bedmate”. The end of the war is for her a time of shuddering self-doubt; a wide-eyed inconsolable gaze at the real world outside childhood.
She becomes a cook, content among the odorous vapours of onion, sweet pepper and garlic until she falls in love with a stunned abruptness. The transience of passion and pain at its absenc sets up a pattern of impermanence in Maya’s life. Travelling to Los Angeles she works in a nightclub and then drifts into managing a brothel. The sprightly hard-boiled tone is spiked by retrospective self-knowledge:
I had managed in a few tense years to become a snob on all levels, racial, cultural, intellectual. I was a madam and thought myself morally superior to the whores. I was a waitress and believed myself cleverer than the customers I served. I was a lonely unmarried mother and held myself to be freer than the married women I met.
After a brief and discomforting visit to the slow-speaking, right-thinking Arkansas of her childhood, Maya returns to California to Cook in a greasy, dingy diner, knowing that the rancid cooking oil and the old men’s sadness has seeped into her pores. A few months of tap-dancing make only a glorious interlude in her sure decline into the world of narcotics and prostitution. Teetering on the brink of destruction, Maya is given a sudden glimpse into the hidden world of the wretched, into which she is poised to rumble. It is a vision of hell on earth: standing in a hit joint for addicts and watching their salivating, scratching degradation she finally “knew innocence as real as a grain of sand between my teeth”. The end of Gather Together in My Name performs an act of redemption upon both life and book. At its moment of crisis Angelou achieves the honed understatement of a deeply-felt truth:
The life of the underworld was truly a rat race, and most of its inhabitants scurried like rodents in the sewers and gutters of the world. I had walked the precipice and seen it all, and at the critical moment one man’s generosity pushed me safely away from the edge.
Entering squalid humiliation and returning from it whole and hopeful, Gather Together in My Name binds horror and raunchy delight together through its unique voice. In it, the reverberations of the Black Church’s Gospel songs and the syncopated rhythms of jazz converge; the inherited proud tradition Angelou’s beleaguered people and the unsentimental isolation of her individual spirit interweave; the natural optimism that chases away shadows is also sharpened into self-lacerating wit. Loving the world, Maya Angelou also knows its cruelty and offers up her autobiography as an extraordinary mixture of innocence and depravity, of elegy and celebration.