Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas

Title: Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
Author: Maya Angelou
Date: 1976
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-25199-6
Length: 242 pages
Quote: “I learned from Porgy and Bess...that jealousy is conceived only in insecurity and must be nourished in fear.”
In the third volume of her memoirs, Maya Angelou gets her break into the performing arts. She explains the second part of her stage/pen name. She meets entertainers older readers will remember: Cab Calloway, Truman Capote, Phyllis Diller, more. She tours Europe . At times Singin’ and Swingin’ reads more like a generic celebrity memoir than like the individual whose story was told in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but the book begins and ends with the private, individual lives of the child Guy Johnson and his mother.
In the second half of the twentieth century it was fashionable to talk as if only the dominant group had the power to act on real bigotry. In this volume, and even more in the next one, we see how wrongheaded this belief was. In her early twenties, Angelou admits, she believed color doomed “Black girls” never to be “discovered,” as Rita Hayworth was, but only “uncovered” as strippers and bar-drinkers. In fact, in the 1950s African-American art and artists were on the leading edge of fashion. Arty audiences around the world adored the all-Black production of Porgy and Bess; in Yugoslavia , African-Americans were less distrusted than Euro-Americans. Angelou portrays herself trying to be polite, but still being reminded constantly of the only White faces she seems to have looked at in her early life, the “trash” kids who bullied her, her brother, and their grandmother.
There are vivid, sometimes hilarious vignettes in this book. The cast make what seems to be several members’ first long trip on a ship. At one party, when they’re all stressed out, several drink too much; Angelou admits pushing “Miss Fine Thing,” the star, who stands up growling, “No one pushed Miss Fine Thing. I fell!” Then there’s the admirer who assures Angelou that the box he’s given her contains his heart; it contains an inedible heart-shaped cake decorated with “symbolic” junk.
Other memories are touching. Worried that Guy, who misses his father, is becoming too interested in being a soldier, she makes anti-war remarks to him; he repeats these remarks and gets into trouble at school. Still, the child affirms that his mother is “a great singer.”

In Singin’ and Swingin’ Angelou presents herself neither as the positive role model she was in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings nor the negative role model she was in Gather Together in My Name. This is a straightforward memoir, a suspense-free but enjoyable part of Angelou’s path from delinquency to celebrity.

As with the first two volumes: I don't physically have a copy now; this set of books sold fast. I can get a copy for any local lurker who needs one, cheaper than I can sell the book online ($5 + $5 shipping). If I'd found the time to post these reviews sooner I could have offered this series as Fair Trade Books and donated 10% of the sale price to any charity of Maya Angelou's choice. Unfortunately it's too late to do that now.