Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: Gather Together in My Name

Title: Gather Together in My Name
Author: Maya Angelou

Web site maintained in memory of the author:
Date: 1974
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-26066-9
Length: 181 pages
Quote: “I had given a promise and found my innocence. I swore I’d never lose it again.”
This is the rough patch in Maya Angelou’s memoirs. Having recommended I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to everybody, I feel a need to begin the review of volume two with a warning. Gather Together in My Name is not for everybody. It’s a cautionary tale for teenagers who feel attracted to sin, vice, and crime. It’s an eye-opener for censorious older people who may have dismissed Angelou as “the former prostitute and poet laureate.” In this book we share Teen Maya’s walk on the wild side, and although Angelou manages to give this book an uplifting ending, many readers will find it disgusting.
And misleading. I’m willing to believe that an eighteen-year-old can “find innocence” again after misadventures like Maya’s, because I’ve seen kids survive similar misadventures; I think teen readers need to know that the survivors are a minority. Some teenagers take drugs, not merely marijuana, which Angelou discusses in this book, but hard drugs, and keep enough brain cells working to succeed as actors, dancers, musicians, writers, or even Presidents of the United States. Some teenagers die during their first experiment with even a legal drug like alcohol or Prozac...and some are killed during friends’ experiences with drugs these teenagers aren’t even taking into their own bodies.
I wish Gather Together in My Name had gone into more detail about the friends who were doing the same stupid things Maya was at this age. They weren’t good or close friends, and the narrative gives us no reason to expect that the ends of their stories would really be part of Angelou’s story, but it seems only fair to tell teenagers: if you go out drinking with a friend, and you get only slightly stupid while your friend passes out, and although you’ve never driven a car before you decide to drive yourself and your friend home, a few hundred miles through the mountains, the statistical odds are against your getting home. Maya Angelou did things like that. Maya Angelou was a Phenomenal Woman. You might not be so lucky. You will notice that the other restless kids who got bored with food service jobs, weren’t allowed to join the Army, and decided to add excitement to their lives by taking drugs or selling sex, did not become famous multitalented artists.
You might even notice that, despite her success in all the performing and creative arts, Angelou never quite reached the pinnacle of success in any artistic endeavor. It’s possible that, if she’d focussed on singing or acting during the years when she was smoking pot, selling liquor, and generally courting disaster, she might have been a superstar like coevals Diana Ross, Eartha Kitt, or Ruby Dee. She was still successful as a supporting actress, as a back-up singer...Angelou’s freedom from whininess about why she wasn’t even more successful is generally refreshing, but a little whining on her behalf might be advisable to adults who choose to share Gather Together in My Name with teenagers.

My Bantam edition of this book cites Shana Alexander’s comment that it’s “rich and funny.” I’ve never found the funny parts. If read as fiction, the scene where Maya challenges the White girl over a perceived insult might be considered funny; since it’s written as a memoir of a time when race tension was such that that incident might have got Maya killed, I find myself not laughing. If read as fiction by someone who hates lesbians, the scene where Maya goes home with a couple of lesbian admirers, gets them drunk, and contrives to sell their bodies for her own vindictive fun and considerable profit, might be funny, but that episode is also a little too nasty for me. I’m not sure I believe it. To the extent that it’s believable I think it’s sad.
On the other hand Maya’s stomach-turning relationship with a married man is worth preserving in print. I recommend it to any woman who imagines her physical relationship with another woman’s husband is “love.” Okay, so most of these slobs don’t have as much nerve as Maya’s jerk, but they are not “lovers.” They are not human beings who love...anybody. If the original marriage really is doomed—as it might be because the original wife is disabled—a man who has the ability to love will either spend his days caring for his wife, and wait to consummate his “love” for a young single woman until after his wife is dead; or at least, if the wife is likely to remain disabled for twenty years, put the wife in a nursing home, get a divorce, and have at least a courthouse wedding with the other woman he loves.
Angelou is still a gifted writer whose scenes spring to life in the reader’s mind. That’s why some readers don’t like this memoir of the roughest and nastiest time in her life. Of the four-volume set of Angelou's memoirs, this is the volume that's hardest to find in stores and first to have been discarded by libraries. But some people still need to read it.

As discussed yesterday, I no longer physically have the copy of this book about which I wrote this review. You can buy it online for less than the minimum price of any book sold through this web site--$5 for the book + $5 for shipping.