Continuing from the deeply affecting first volume of her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
(1970), Angelou, sixteen, has given birth to her illegitimate son Guy, WW II has just ended, there's optimism in the land and racism, blacks are telling themselves, was only a temporary aberration (didn't we, after all, work together for the defense effort?). But the mood abruptly comes to ground, Angelou's poetic prose turns tougher and the remembering evokes an immediacy of long-ago dejection. Heeding Mama's advice not to "chippy," to walk tall — Mama was the "baddest" lady ever (and surely she was) — Angelou hits the road out of San Francisco, things close to the edge, back to Stamps, Arkansas, to the security of a grandmother, only to take flight just as quickly again, a step ahead of southern retribution. And instead of the longed-for cashmere sweater-set June Allyson life, there was to be dead time spent as a "Daddy's 'ho" (she was only one of many he has working the Sacramento Valley farm towns, although Angelou wasn't to know that until later); learning how to short-order cook in joints; dreaming of her name in lights in the dance team of Poole & Rita (he resplendent in powder blue tux, she, Rita, in a sequined swimsuit); success of sorts as a madam herself of a two-lesbian house — so much happening that one is stunned at book's end to realize that Angelou is then all of 19. Whitey is prominent here only by indirection — Angelou's too involved "tending to business" to care about reminding us of things we should in any case already understand. Her own thing on her own terms — worlds removed from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man carrying his patron's letter, "keep this nigger running" — and because of it, Angelou's stature, as a writer, a woman, a black, grows, walks tall.
Read full book review >