Updated on September 25, 2015
15. ‘All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes’ by Maya Angelou
The last time we left Maya Angelou’s autobiography she was living in Ghana, having left her African husband, and she was tending to her son who was in hospital after a car accident with a broken neck. All God’s Children is the fifth volume of Angelou’s autobiography, following on from: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singin’ and Swingin’ and The Heart of a Woman.
This book deals further with Angelou’s complicated relationship with Africa as an African American person. All the American expats are desperate to fit in there because there’s a sense that they have at last returned home, but they often find that the local Africans meet them with scorn and suspicion. Angelou wonders whether they can sense the “stink of slavery” on her, and this suspicion works both ways. She begins to wonder whether these Africans are the descendants of the people who betrayed her ancestors and helped to sell them into slavery. It’s a shocking theory to read, but fascinating to hear Angelou’s take on the strange disconnect she feels from her ancestors’ continent.
In All God’s Children we learn more about Angelou’s various jobs and romances in Africa, and her changing relationship with her son. He no longer needs her and the two drift further apart: she feels that she has to leave him to get on with his own life, but the tug of motherhood is always there for her. There is also more about the American Civil Rights Movement. Angelou meets Malcolm X in Africa and works as his chauffeur for a while. She mocks Martin Luther King’s non-violence but knows, deep down, that her words are a betrayal. We also briefly see Muhammed Ali, who snubs Malcolm X outside an African hotel.
Perhaps my favourite scene takes place in Berlin. Angelou briefly joins a touring theatre company and visits Germany and Italy to perform in ‘The Blacks’. Whilst in Germany, she receives an invitation to dinner at a German family’s home. They say she can bring anybody she likes, so she takes along a Jew she has just met. Unfortunately, over dinner it becomes clear that the Germans used to be Nazis during the war, and each group around the table tells a story so laced with hatred and anger – covered with a veneer of humour – that Angelou has to excuse herself to be sick in the garden. It’s an incredibly powerfully written scene, and it made a pleasing change to read one in-depth anecdote, as opposed to Angelou’s more usual broad strokes.
Another solid addition to the autobiography, and well worth reading for the dinner party scene alone.
“In the yearning, Heaven and Africa were inextricably combined.”
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.
Read the final instalment, A Song Flung Up To Heaven.