Updated on September 25, 2015
5. ‘Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas’ by Maya Angelou
My adventure into the depths of Maya Angelou’s autobiography continues, this time with volume 3. The first volume, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings covers her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, and the second, Gather Together in My Name follows her first loves and the early years of her son’s life.
In Singin’ and Swingin’ we see a much more emotionally mature and stable Angelou, beginning to forge a career as a singer and dancer in the entertainment industry.
Before her career as a musician takes off, Angelou marries a white Greek former sailor called Tosh. Her mother objects to the union, and eventually Angelou finds herself in a marriage in which she is forced to (as she descriptively puts it) ‘surrender territory’. He shuts down many of the things she takes pleasure in – particularly her religion – and she does not immediately object because with him she has created a secure family for her son. Eventually the marriage breaks down, and when she is forced to go back to work she begins to carve out a place for herself in entertainment.
The main thrust of this volume is Angelou’s career: she goes from jobbing on the bar circuit as a singer/dancer/girl who encourages punters to buy drinks, to getting a permanent role in Porgy and Bess for their European tour. She goes to lots of foreign cities with the company, from Venice to Paris to Zagreb, and the descriptions of lavish parties and unusual locals are hugely entertaining.
But there is a dark undercurrent to her life of wild foreign parties: she has left her son in America. How much she misses him is buried under layers of art and frivolity, and she is gone for months on end. It’s no surprise, then, that when she gets back her son has been damaged by her absence and – once again – we see her grow from her experiences.
I think it’s fascinating to see a woman having to choose between her career and her son, and choosing her career. It’s not something you hear about often, but it’s probably a decision that countless people face every day. Of course, Angelou admits her mistakes and recognises the impact that her absence has had, and that’s what I love most about her: she tells us what she did, exactly as she did it, and opens herself up to whatever judgement we may pass on her. I can only describe her autobiography as ballsy.
“We all laughed at the good times in the past which were good enough when they happened, but were much better upon reflection.”
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.
Read the next instalment, The Heart of a Woman.