The one in the whirlwind of Black history

Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman (1981)

I didn’t know what to expect from Maya Angelou. My only knowledge of her, being a Caucasian French woman, is through Oprah Winfrey (whose fame crossed the ocean, but by name only). I heard of long and adventurous life, but I didn’t know that this book was just a part in her memoir, and a small part indeed.

This book packs a lot of history and a lot of names within just a few years of her life. It starts in 1957 when she moves from the West Coast to New York with her son and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She then proceeds to explain how she came to work for Martin Luther King, then to almost marry someone, then to actually fall for a South African freedom fighter in exile who brings her and her son to Africa (Cairo) but soon disappoints her with his philandering and domineering behavior. The final pages of the book are set in Ghana in the early 1960s, but it ends so abruptly that I was somehow frustrated for lack of a better editing and closure.

I was impressed by Angelou’s voice, her strength, self-reliance and wisdom. I was floored by her sense of freedom. She never stops moving forward, and setbacks, grief and sadness are just brief intervals before she picks herself up again and goes for the next thing. Her life (or the glimpse on just 5 years of it!) is so full of life-changing decisions that I was riveted, but also exhausted. She offers a very large perspective on events happening around her in America and Africa at the same period, and with so many portraits, it’s really a collective history as well as a deeply personal one.

My weird feeling is that Angelou seems both deeply rooted in a community, culture, historical moment, as well as a whirlwind of emotions, reactions taken at the spur of the moment (why did she agree to marry a man she didn’t really love? why did she suddenly turn her back and decide for Africa?). I admired her, but I couldn’t really understand her.

As a European reader, the experience of reading this book is nothing short of an eye-opener, because I don’t think I have read anything so blatant about what it means to be a Black, African-American woman in mid-20th century and to hear it from her own voice. We don’t talk about races in France, so I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people. I may have misunderstood that part myself, and that was probably the result of her times and her heightened political conscience. It is really fascinating to see how African and African-American activists rubbed shoulders, influenced one another (I’m really treading lightly because my knowledge of it is very limited), and how the early 1960s with the new independent states in Africa raised hopes for so many (and not only in Europe and white America). More than half a century later, we are so far from that wind of freedom and optimism that we have mostly forgotten about it.

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6 thoughts on “The one in the whirlwind of Black history

  1. >>I wasn’t comfortable reading that she distrusted white people and visibly thought that white people could not understand Black people.

    So I’m coming from the same US history as Maya Angelou, but I will say, yeah, as an American, I fully understand this. The surprising thing to me is that so many black Americans DON’T distrust all white people, given how disgracefully they’ve been treated throughout the nation’s history. Blah, it’s such a crummy history. BAD WORK ANCESTORS.

    • Jenny, thanks for sharing your own experience. In France we cultivate the imaginary ideal that people of all races go hand in hand, but of course that’s not what happens in real life. We think of communities in terms of socio-economic level and also of faith, not of races, but I think we’re missing it altogether, partly we don’t want to see the problem. Denying races is perhaps another form of racism.

  2. I loved your review, and what you shared about race relations in France. I read another in Angelou’s memoir series last year, it was called Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, and it was fascinating. I had no idea her life and experiences were so varied. I understand your comment about admiring her but not understanding her. I feel similarly. Anyway, I mean to keep reading the memoirs and maybe then I may get a deeper understanding. Such a powerful, intriguing woman!

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