Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book Review: The Heart of a Woman

Title: The Heart of a Woman
       
Author: Maya Angelou
       
Date: 1981
       
Publisher: Bantam
       
ISBN: 0-553-22839-0
       
Length: 272 pages
       
Quote: “I was not crying because of a lack of love...I was mourning all my ancestors.”
       
Some people are natural bachelors. Possibly Maya Angelou was one. In Singin’ and Swingin’ and   Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, her marriage to “Tosh” Angelos ended almost as quickly as it began. In The Heart of a Woman, while starring in a play, Angelou jilts an African-American man, marries an African man, and divorces him. Despite the grief for her ancestors she feels in Ghana and the panic she feels when her teenaged son is injured in an accident, she likes being on her own.
       
This fourth volume of Angelou’s memoirs contains more celebrity gossip than the first three books together. In this book, she’s a rising star whose social circle includes Billie Holiday, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Miriam Makeba, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Hanifa Fathy, and of course her short-term husband, Vusumzi Make, who was also a celebrity at least in Ghana. But the story covers the years from 1957 to 1967. These people are still fairly young, and none of them knows which of them will become famous.
       
Her son, Guy Johnson, is now mature enough to become an interesting character. Possibly the liveliest story about him in The Heart of a Woman is the one in which Angelou goes to a bully’s house, shows a teenaged gang a pistol, and promises that if the gang harasses Guy she won’t leave so much as a cockroach alive in their homes. For a mother, the gangsters, have to admit, she’s a tough “mother.”
       
Angelou also describes the most controversial and confrontational phase of her life. Banned from joining the Army because she’d attended an “un-American” night school, Angelou is now old enough to take a political stand—on the extreme left, of course. In The Heart of a Woman she does not directly address the charge often made against Dr. King, that he “was a Communist” (which might have been hard to prove), but does discuss some of the evidence on which the charge was based. The groups with which they worked supported Cuba , and when Khrushchev and Castro met in New York City, Guy Johnson declared that “the meeting...is the most important thing that could happen. It means that, in my time, I am seeing powerful forces get together to oppose capitalism.”
       
"All the [B]lack struggles were one, with one enemy and one goal,” and although many of the people involved would have defined that goal as equal civil rights, there were those who felt that reclaiming their African heritage meant reclaiming tribalistic or socialistic political systems. As Angelou describes these scenes, people singing “O Freedom” in protest of outrages did not take time to debate whether they were more concerned about the freedom of each individual or the “freedom” socialism claimed to offer.
       
In the lives of many people at this period, a conflict could be observed. Angelou is typical. Her actual focus was consistently, unmistakably, on the freedom of the individual, as exemplified in her marriages and divorces. At the same time she was working with organizations whose actions, when effectual, tended to promote bigger, more invasive government. It’s hard to blame Angelou, Martin Luther King, or any of their colleagues for this observed tendency when the historical fact was that people dedicated to the socialist religion were actively working to steer almost every organization that existed in a leftward direction. Even the superficially patriotic service organizations were being steered away from any concern with individual liberties and toward a quasi-religious reverence for the United Nations. Change-oriented groups, like those working toward civil rights, were being steered toward a position that was not really liberal at all, but far to the left. It would be unreasonable to expect, even today, that activists of Angelou’s generation would ever really denounce socialism. In the 1960s Angelou had been persuaded that socialistic or totalitarian tendencies were part of “Blackness”...and yes, within her demographic, she and Dr. King represented the moderate, peace-seeking, Christian, and patriotic side of things.
       
Extremists in the civil rights movement were attacking the laudable efforts to overcome racism that Angelou recounts in Singin’ and Swingin’. Malcolm X was saying, “Any White American who says he’s your friend is either weak...or he’s an infiltrator.” There was some truth in this; friendliness and neighborliness are “weak” bonds compared with kinship and marriage. In the 1960s thousands, if not millions, of White Americans were seeing and saying that segregation was stupid, that it wasn’t always possible to tell on which side of a color barrier an individual belonged, that maintaining separate schools was a waste of money and maintaining separate hospitals could amount to killing emergency patients. They (the generations before mine) were voting for desegregation. We (the older generation and also mine) rejected the idea of being offered unfair advantages on merely demographic grounds. White Americans did indeed support the civil rights movement, whether they were public figures making public statements like Eleanor Roosevelt, or rich people donating money to organizations like Shelley Winters, or neighbors sponsoring “deserving” college students like Joycelyn Elders. Still, this was “weak” support in the sense that it reflected a general feeling about how the world ought to be, rather than their own personal struggle for survival. As in the old joke about producing a country breakfast, the hen was involved, but the hog was committed.
       
Under such abrasive influences, Angelou admits, she backslid. She played an unsympathetic character in a show that “became such a cruel parody of [W]hite society that I was certain it would flop.” In practice “Blacks in the audience reacted with amusement” or “coughed or grunted disapproval. They were embarrassed at our blatancy...Whites loved The Blacks.” The actors “howled in our dressing room. If the audience missed the play’s obtrusive intent, then the crackers were numbly insensitive...if they understood, and still liked the drama, they were psychically sick, which we suspected anyway.” It did not occur to the actors (they were young) that paying for tickets to this show might be a way White theatre-goers tried to express respect, support, or even apology.
       
So, when a White woman feels the need to tell Angelou that she and her friends have seen the play several times because “we support you,” Angelou snarls, still in her hateful character, “How many Blacks live in your building? How many Black friends do you have? I mean, not counting your maid?” The supporter “turned to leave, but I caught her sleeve. ‘Would you take me home with you? Would you become my friend?’” Not surprisingly, the supporter doesn’t feel friendly any more.
       
Young readers will shake their heads, wondering what was wrong with everybody in the 1960s. I don’t blame them. Something was wrong with Americans in the 1960s: almost all of us were choking on a huge tangled mess of lies about what “race” was and meant. Progress has been made.
       
But in this book Angelou is still making progress. She learned for herself that “strong” relationships could not be based on race alone, that a real African like Make was even less of a treat to live with than a White American like Angelos.
       
There are readers, and I am one, who still find these parts of The Heart of a Woman annoying. I don’t believe in a demographic approach to friendship. For me, personally, the High Sensory Perceptivity genes may dictate whether someone can become my friend or not; the skin color genes are irrelevant. Friendship is a personal, individual thing, determined to some extent by chance, not by a desire to be politically correct. Still, rereading the scene where Angelou stayed in her nasty character and alienated the supporter, I feel like yelling at her: “How many White friends do you have? Would you take me home with you?” Which is not the way friendships begin. Angelou knew that, even in 1964. She must have been very, very tired. But the scene is still annoying to read.
       
There are also parts of this book that tell us more than some people, probably including Guy Johnson, wanted to know. Angelou describes Make as physically attractive. The detailed description of the sensations of physical attraction caught the attention of several of the people who supplied blurbs for the Bantam edition. This is not a smutty book, but it’s a very sensual book...not the kind of book young students generally want their parents to write.

The Heart of a Woman is recommended to those who want to look back at history, who can stand a little annoyance just for the sake of appreciating the amount of progress that’s been made in fifty years. It’s also recommended to fans of any of the celebrities mentioned, who will appreciate these glimpses of these people before most of them became famous. It’s also recommended to anyone who’s read the first three volumes of Angelou’s memoirs and wants to read the whole sequence. It’s also recommended to the general (adult) reading public, because the parts that are not annoying or embarrassing are a good read.