“And now, less than one hundred years after slavery was abolished, some descendants of those early slaves taken from Africa returned, weighted with a heavy hope, to a continent which they could not remember, to a home which had shamefully little memory of them.”- Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes
Maya Angelou was a wonderful woman who struggled against the odds and gave us a wealth of experience and wisdom to draw from, as well as a reminder of our history. I’m always surprised by the fact that she wasn’t even famous when she wrote her autobiographies yet now they are such important accounts, revolutionary. Her writing is beautiful, honest, poetic.
Most of this book takes place in Ghana in the early 1960s, at a time when pan-Africanism was on the rise and before the Civil Rights Act was passed. This book was very much about identity and belonging, themes very dear to the African-Americans who went to Ghana and elsewhere in Africa hoping to be welcomed as returning sons and daughters. However, it was not that easy. Angelou examines the different psyches and mentalities of these ostensibly similar groups of people. She looks at emotions such as home-sickness, guilt and anger, all keenly observed and reported.
This is such an important historical account. It was obviously a moving experience for Angelou to be in Africa, in a country that was newly free from colonialism, a country that was ruled by black Africans. Her comment about her amazement to see a black president on the money was so touching. For me it’s hard to imagine not being allowed in certain buildings, at least not through the front door, but for Angelou it must have been surreal to finally be in a country where she was free to go anywhere she wished:
“Seeing Africans enter and leave the formal building made me tremble with an awe I had never known. Their authority on the marble steps again proved that Whites had been wrong all along. Black and brown skin did not herald debasement and a divinely created inferiority. We were capable of controlling our cities, our selves and our lives with elegance and success.”
One part that really resonated with me was the part when W.E.B. DuBois died. The words that Angelou used to talk about him could very well be used now by her many admirers to talk about her own passing:
“Du Bois was ninety-six years old, and frail, but we wanted him to live forever. He had no right to desire for death. We argued that great men and women should be forced to live as long as possible. The reverence they enjoyed was a life sentence, which they could neither revoke or modify.”
In the end, Maya Angelou reconciled herself to Africa in a way I found beautifully stated in her words:
“If the heart of Africa still remained allusive, my search for it had brought me closer to understanding myself and other human beings.”
R.I.P. Maya Angelou, you’re missed already.
This book reminded me of the content of one of my undergrad Sociology classes (Sociology of Tourism). My professor, Dr. Wyllie, did a lot of work in Ghana and we learned about the quarrels over Elmina Castle and other slave-trading posts. Ghanaians want the castles fixed up and renovated, while the African-Americans want them left the way they are as a stark reminder of the awful past. The Ghanaians are not able to understand why the African-Americans get so emotional about these places, while the African-Americans can’t understand why the Ghanaians don’t show any emotion. This helped reiterate Angelou’s observations, how despite looking similar, we (Africans and African-Americans) have had different experiences and may see the world differently when it comes to some things. The good thing about Ghana is that the Government there is trying to take into account concerns from both parties.