Updated on September 25, 2015
8. ‘The Heart of a Woman’ by Maya Angelou
In The Heart of a Woman we continue the autobiography of the unstoppable Maya Angelou. We’ve already covered her childhood in Arkansas in I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the early years of her son’s life in Gather Together in My Name and her time in the spotlight in Singin’ and Swingin’.
The Heart of a Woman introduces us to a much more politically conscious Maya, one who has not only woken up to the realities of being a black woman in 1950s America, but who is also beginning to join the campaign and find her voice.
To begin with, Angelou makes the move to New York City to join the Harlem Writers’ Guild. She leaves the world of showbiz behind, keen instead to be taken seriously as a writer and activist, rather than an entertainer. Unsurprisingly she succeeds in this, running the offices of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and CAWAH (Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage). These roles bring her into contact with some of the biggest names of the American Civil Rights Movement including, of course, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. King comes across as charming and a little playful, but nonetheless intimidating, whilst X is more straightforward and serious.
Her romances continue to feature heavily, which I really enjoy. She speaks very matter-of-factly about her feelings towards her men; sometimes it even comes across a little cold, as she seems willing to both leap into marriage and drop an engagement, with some intense thought but also a fierce loyalty to her gut. In The Heart of a Woman she throws over a pleasant but uninteresting man called Thomas for an African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make (aka Vus), who once survived subsisting on worms after he was thrown out of jail and left for dead in the South African wilderness. A far more interesting prospect, I’d have to agree.
She marries Vus, moves with him and her son to Egypt and settles into the constantly tense life of the wife of a freedom-fighter. He is always travelling, consistently in debt, and often laden with the scent of other women’s perfume. Once again her practical side shines through, keeping her with him for longer than is perhaps wise because of the life he is giving her and her son, but eventually she calls him out on his behaviour in a spectacular (and public) way.
This is another fascinating volume in May Angelou’s rich and twisting life. I love that I never know what is going to happen next, that she seems to go wherever life takes her, not floating in the stream, but kicking against the current and always willing to try a new direction. I also adore her son, Guy, who is a young man in this book and has become an ever more interesting character to read. Now and again he even manages to put his mother in her place.
“It is … my life. I will live it whole or not at all. I love you, Mom. Maybe now you’ll have a chance to grow up.”
GUY to MAYA
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.
Read the next instalment, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes.