ELEVEN YEARS AGO, James Baldwin heralded the autobiographical event, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as marking the "beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts of all black men and women." From a source less canonical, such extraordinary praise might have been adjusted downward for inflation. Since The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass , after all, autobiography has been the Afro-American strong suit, a literary form generating maximum compassion and indignation for victims of injustice. By the '60s and early '70s, that outpouring of first-person straight talk (viz., Claude Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, George Jackson, Malcolm X and Baldwin himself) brought in a high tide of compelling testimony that swept over the public in wave upon candid, coruscating wave, seemingly telling everything like it was in black and white. America. To move well beyond this shoreline to new ground, to beat out the first contours of a new era of mind and spirit seems, at first thought, more than the life story of one gifted, determine woman could reasonably be supposed to achieve.
That, nevertheless, is precisely what Maya Anelou has done. She has achieved a kind of literary breakthrough which few writers of any time, place, or race achieve. Moreover, since writing
The Caged Bird Sings , she has done so withs tunning regularity, in Gather Together in My Name , in Singn' and Swing' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas . Now comes her uproarious, passinate, and beautifully written The Heart of a Woman , equal in every respect to Gather Toether in My Name and only a shade off the perfection of her luminous first volume. As with any corpus of high creativity, exactly what makes Angelou's writing unique is more readily appreciated than analyzed and stated. It is, I think, a melding of unconcerned honesty, consummate craft, and perfect descriptive pitch, yielding a rare compound of great emotional force and authenticity, undiluted by polemic.
Zora Neale Hurston, whose autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road , and semiautobiographical fiction have finally begun to earn her posthumous recognition as a major precursor of feminist writers, is clearly one of Angelou's models. The parallelism of Hurston's and Angelou's lives fascinates: southern hamlet to urban bigtime; sexual liberation shockingly at variance with their times (Hurston's alleged pedophilia, Angelou's lesbian flirtations); adulation of a larger than life parent (Hurston's jackleg precher father, Angelou's refined cardsharp mother); quick intelligence married to iron willpower; domination of men, and propensity for racial romanticism. Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road turned her childhood and sand trap, Eatonville, Florida, into a world of fascinating tensions and deep allegory, just as Angelou's Stamps, Arkansas, a ben-in-the-road-nowhere of oiled rednecks and careful-stepping blacks, is similarly transformed in her first two volumes by narrative power and gemmed insights. But for purity of phrasing, candor of adolescent and adult personal and sexual experiences, and psychology of femisism, Anglou far surpasses her teacher and would be, in France, compared to the early Colette.
From materials as uncaptivating as a series of dumb personal misfortunes and sordid California business deals, and displays of barely possible talent as actress, dancer, singer, or mother, Anglou has rearranged, edited, and pointed up her coming of age and going abroad in the world with such just- rightness of timing and inner truthfulness that each of her books is a continuing autobiography of much of Afro-America. Her ability to shatter the opaque prisms of race and class between reader and subject is her sjpecial gift. "Bailey and I," she writes in The Caged Bird Sings of a childhood dilemma she and her brother confronted in Stamps, "Bailey and I decided to memorize a scene from The Merchant of Venice , but we realized that [grand] Momma would question us about the author and that we'd have to tell her that Shakespeare was white, and it wouldn't matter to her whether he was dead or not. So we chose "The Creation' by James Weldon Johnson instead." In this poignant vignette, the tragedy that was once this nation's two-track culture is illumined with the intensity of lightning. The Heart of a Woman follows the author into the late '50s, that transitional time between national eras, of Little Rock, "Negro first," State Department - sponsored international tours of Porgy and Bess (Angelou was the company's premier dancer), and premonitory tremors of the institional and social explosions of the '60s. Modest Hollywood bungalows still could not be leased by Afro-Americans without recourse to white go-betweens, and Billie Holiday still lived - lived during five ribald, unforgettable days like a dying tornado in Angelou's Laurel Canyon house. "What's a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?'" Angelou's precocious son interrupts the singing of "Strange Fruit" to ask. "Billie looked up and studied Guy for a second. 'It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That's what it means.' The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me."
Soon, we are in the early '60s, and everyone is beginning to rage. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., serene at the center of his own storm, soulfully counsels the author during a surprise visit to SCLC's Harlem headquarters, where Angelou, after mounting the successful Cabaret for Freedom at the Village Gate, has succeeded Bayard Rustin as program coordinator. "Redemptive suffering had always been the part of Martin's argument which I found difficult to accept," and so, while admiring King's integrity, she and her prominent Harlem friends John Killens and Max Roach are drawn to Lumumba, Malcolm X, expatriate South African freedom fighters, and young militants shouting, "Hey, Khruschev. Go on, with your bad self," when the Soviet leader visits Fidel Castro at Harlem's famous Hotel Teresa. Lumumba's assassination sends Angelou off to the United Nations with much of Harlem marching behind for what was surely one of the General Assembly's more memorable interruptions. Her participation in the Harlem Writers Guild, the SCLC, and the life of her fiance ceases abruptly when Vusumzi Make, a roly-poly, charmingly incompetent South African freedom fighter, proposes, takes her to London, and then installs her ina luxurious New York apartment and neglects to pay the rent. Meanwhile, she portrays the White Queen in Gent's The Blacks , but only after Make overcomes her anger about the play's message that black victims of colonialism, if given the chance, would behave no better than their white master: "Dear wife, that is a reverse racism. Black people are human. No more, no less."
Just how human, the author discovers in Egypt. Working as a journalist to pay the neglected Cairo apartment rent, dismayed by the sexual hostility of Nasser's male revolutionaries, and shabbily deceived by the womanizing Make, she discovers the African diplomatic community convened in plenary session to decide the propriety of her leaving the freedom fighter. "Sister, tell your part," the Liberian ambassador commands. Angelou's foul-mouthed performance is more than traditional ambassadors from revolutionary countries have bargained for. She wins her case, is assured that she and her son will be welcome in Black Africa.
Next stop, Nkrumah's Ghana. As a former Ghana University lecturer and professional historian to whom the global turbulence of the '60s is fascinatingly unmangageable, I can hardly wait for Angelou's next moving and vastly informative installment.