BECAUSE THIS is the fifth volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography, it's tempting to ask how one writer could stretch a life through so many works. The easy answer is that she can do so because her life has been more exciting, more adventurous, more fraught with challenge than most lives. But the truth is Maya Angelou could have probably written five volumes of her life if she had spent all of her days alone in a 12-by-12 room with nothing but a pen and paper.
She hasn't, of course. In this volume alone she lives in West Africa during the 1960s with a group of black Americans in self-imposed exile, deals with her son's near-fatal automobile accident, helps entertain Malcolm X when he visits, and dances with royalty.
Yet what endears Angelou to us is both none of this adventure and exotic variety and all of it. It is not her actions, but the meaning she gives each of them that makes her life story important. There is always present her mother wit, her humor, her sincere search for significance where there seems to be none. She not only lives history but in a quiet way gives us her interpretation of it, never imposing herself, but always provoking thought.
Only occasionally is the writing in All God's Children brilliant, but when Angelou weaves her stylistic magic she does captivate: "The breezes of the West African night were intimate and shy, licking the hair, sweeping through cotton dresses with unseemly intimacy, then disappearing into the utter blackness." That is the first sentence of the book and one of the more memorable.
Her true strength is as a storyteller, although her first vocation was as a dancer and actress. Just as Angelou the raconteur charms an audience today during lectures and readings, she charms her readers. She knows how to weave a tale, draw the most out of a moment, play an audience to the hilt. It is not the way Angelou strings words together that will be remembered when this book is put away, but the stories of her life, the anecdotes about famous people and her heartfelt search for what she calls "home."
THIS SEARCH for "home" centers on Angelou's realization that her son Guy has been a kind of personal home for her and she has been his home. The thought comes to her after Guy is in an automobile accident. Daily, she stands by his hospital bed, while he lies motionless in a body cast with one arm and one leg fractured and his neck broken.
Reflecting upon the possibility that he might die, she remembers, "When he was two months old and perched on my left hip, we left my mother's house and together, save for one year when I was touring, we had been each other's home and center for seventeen years.
"He could die if he wanted to and go off to wherever dead folks go, but I would be left without a home."
Later, and throughout most of the book, she tells of her life with a group of black intellectuals who have moved to Ghana, also in search of "home" -- a home they could never find in America. Angelou nicknamed the group "Revolutionist Returnees."
It was her son's accident that put Angelou in Ghana. The two had traveled from Cairo, where they had been living, to Ghana so Guy could attend the University of Ghana in Accra. Angelou planned to settle in Liberia.
But after the accident, needing to be near Guy in the hospital, Angelou joined the group of black American immigrants with ease, sharing with each member the need to find a "home" where they were neither hated nor abused because of their color.
Ghana at the time was ripe for their quest. Just five years after becoming independent from Britain, it was ruled by Kwame Nkrumah, a progressive president who let it be known that "American Negroes" were welcome. Those that made the journey and settled there made wondrous discoveries and also suffered harsh disappointments.
Frequently, the black immigrants were met with disdain from Africans, a reaction that grew out of cultural differences as well as years of miseducation about each other. Yet, on the surface, the two groups interpreted each other's actions as arrogance.
After one such misunderstanding with a receptionist at a Ghanaian business, Angelou reflects on her reaction: "I would not admit that if I couldn't be comfortable in Africa, I had no place else to go."
Despite the clashes between cultures, there are numerous times when the differences between the two groups dissolve and their histories mesh. In one incident, some Ghanaian women mistake Angelou for one of their own. So sure are they of their assessment that they speak to her in their native tongue and wait for her answer. Tearfully, they recount for her the story of how years ago many adults were dragged from their village by slave traders while the children escaped by hiding in the woods.
"They are sure you are descended from those stolen mothers and fathers," an interpreter explains to Angelou, as the writer trembles with joy, tears trickling down her cheeks.
In all of its manifestations Angelou's search for "home" -- a place or condition of belonging -- should be a universal journey understood by most readers. Although her story is one of an actual journey to another continent, it is also the story of a spiritual search that takes place inside every person who quests after self-knowledge.
Angelou appropriately dedicates this volume of her life to "Julian and Malcolm and all the fallen ones who were passionately and earnestly looking for a home." Malcolm is, of course, the late Muslim leader Malcolm X. Julian is the late writer Julian Mayfield, who at his death in 1984 was serving as writer-in-residence at Howard University. Mayfield is an important figure in this volume, and in this segment of Angelou's life. A tearful, distraught Angelou attended Mayfield's funeral at Howard University's Rankin Chapel in October of 1984. "He was my brother, and a brother's love is so important to a woman in this world today," she said that day.
She must have come to that funeral wearing fresh memories of him after days of conjuring up their life together for this book. It must have been just as difficult for her to write the end of All God's Children, where as she leaves Africa, Mayfield hugs her and says, "Be strong girl. Be very strong."