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Maya Angelou’s Heart of a Woman

30 Nov 2017Essay Samples

Summary: This paper is a summary in detail of Maya Angelou’s Heart of a Woman, the third installment of her autobiography, which includes I know why the caged bird sings and Gather Together in My Name. This book is about her son’s adolescence, and the relationships and changes that took place during her life in the 1960s and 1970s.

Maya Angelou’s memoirs are written in similar style to her other books, all of which have drawn upon her personal experience as a black woman in America in the late 20th century. Her relationship with herself and with her son Guy is the central theme of the novel, although her tumultuous marriage to the South African activist Vus Make provides an interesting contrast to her values as expressed in the rest of the book. The book is novelistic in the way that Kerouac is novelistic – the story of a journey across countries, and encounters with significant individuals, set in a chronological stream marked, in this case, by the growth and development of a child (Guy). The book is also a memoir in the classic sense: a record of the author’s memories during the most significant times in her life. Angelou speaks of herself as “flowering” during the period of time that the memoirs occupy, though the reader’s sense of her personal development seems to be obscured by Angelou’s current state of personal development. This will be discussed below, along with the characters that occupy prominent places in the book, and the historical context in which Angelou’s memoirs are set.

It is often difficult for the author of a memoir to choose the setting appropriate to the tone of the book. In Heart of a Woman, the setting, as it changes from California to New York to London to Cairo, is just as vital to the message of the book, although the interpersonal dynamics of the characters frequently overshadow the detail of the setting. For example, the setting of Angelou’s encounter with Billie Holiday is left fairly vague, in order to spend time describing the emotions of the encounter. This technique of substituting a direct description of the feelings of the author and other characters for a description of the setting is common to modern memoirs, where the language of psychology can be accessed by the audience, and the author need not resort to elaborate figurative metaphor. The contrast between California and New York, for instance, is not a contrast of the sky’s expansiveness or the character of the architecture or the weather, but in the emotional subtext of Angelou’s interactions with other people.

People in California were accommodating, there existed “well-meaning white people,” which are few and far between when Angelou moves to New York. Her connections in the Harlem Writers’ Group lead her into a society composed entirely of black people, among whom there is no lack of hostility towards whites. Guy continues to grow and value his intelligence, something that we see developing even in the first few pages of the novel, when Angelou mentions that Guy would rather be reading or playing a word game than listening to Billie Holiday sing him a “goodnight song” (Angelou, 13). Later, when Maya and Guy have moved to New York, the pair find that values have changed, and life is much more political.

Angelou’s encounters with New York literary geniuses are limited mainly to the circle of writers she meets in Harlem. Throughout the book, it is evident that Angelou’s life experience has been mostly in the black community, although one realizes this only as an afterthought. The richness of her life and the depth of the people she encounters are portrayed without recourse to stereotyping or defeatist descriptions of black urban culture. This culture is another central theme of the book, and Angelou chooses to depict it as parallel in every way to “white culture”; by ‘culture’ I mean art, literature, dance, and music. The fine arts in the black community do not suffer from oppression by racist elements, but they are tools of political expression in New York in ways that they were not in California. At least for Angelou, confronting her own political reality leads to a revolution in the form of her self-expression. Need related academic paper? Order it at PhDify.com.

After coming to New York and falling in love with, first, a bail bondsman, and then a South African activist fleeing Apartheid, Angelou finds herself a writer rather than a singer or dancer. Her new husband, Make (or “Vus,” short for Vusumzi), is a source of conflict between herself and Guy, but his fight appeals to the dream of political efficacy that she has developed throughout her life. Before leaving with Vus for London and Cairo, Angelou participates in a production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” in which she finds a desire, and later an aptitude, for fiction. Genet’s play is able to convey a political message by creating absurd situations that point out the absurdity of racism. While Angelou admires this technique, she is much more direct in her approach to the audience. However, this could be because she can justifiably assume that her audience knows that racism is absurd.

The last part of the memoirs concerns the building realization that Angelou must become a writer in order to purge herself of her past, to make a new future for herself, not bound by responsibilities to others, but choosing to be part of a community in which positive thinking can overcome the daily oppressions that we encounter. After realizing that Vus treated her as an object, and not as another person, Angelou leaves him, and returns to New York. Rebuilding her life without a man to rely on is part of Angelou’s development into the woman she is today, though she sees, in herself and other women, the seeds of negativity, of internalized oppression, and of defeatism.

Her work in the civil rights movement was based in a positive dream for the future, not in anger against oppressive racism. Throughout the book, Angelou portrays racists as either absurd or misguided, never characterizing them as evil, and never allowing them to invade her own peace of mind. This unshakeable peace of mind is only disrupted by her ongoing concern for her son. Guy’s departure for college is the closing scene of the book, and no more appropriate event could bring closure to this middle chapter of Angelou’s life story. Letting her son out into the world on his own is an act of Angelou’s own confidence that the world is a better place, and that her son is strong enough to make his way through it.

  • Angelou, Maya. Heart of a Woman. New York: Bantam, 1997. 

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