I love reading Maya Angelou and enjoyed this memoir detailing her history in the late 1950s and early 1960s, shuttling from a houseboat commune in Sausalito to LA to NYC to Cairo and beyond. Her work in NYC brought her in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Max Roach, among others.
Most interesting to me were the descriptions of life in the ever-changing times, her mother and her being the first black hotel guests at a Fresno hotel that had just opened to blacks, her description of the streets of Harlem teeming with people to see speakers, her memories of life in the Fillmore district with a car accident at Fulton/Gough and her son learning to ride his bike in Alamo Square (“a park on Fulton”, I assume is A-Square).
Unfortunately, she marries an African freedom fighter mid-way through and gives up her work outside the home, retreating even from friends. She makes us suffer through the long, tedious marriage that you know is going to end, but not until they get to Cairo and she has further proof of his infidelity in addition to unpaid bills that he ignores. He also becomes enraged when she gets a job. Good riddance, she jettisons him near then end, then wraps up the tale with further travels in Africa with her son. Still, a strong first half and fairly weak second.
Maya Angelou’s biographical bits are worth hoovering up in whatever small increments they come in. This book is devoted to remembrance of her mother, Vivian Baxter, Lady B, with whom Maya went to live when she was 13 after being raised by her paternal grandmother in Arkansas. Maya and brother Bailey fled the south for the freedom of California and finished growing up there. The story is recounted again here about becoming the first black woman to run the street cars, as a “conductress,” a job she gets out of sheer persistence and stubbornness of sitting in the office for two weeks waiting. She talks about the pickle factory at the corner of Fillmore and Fulton Street in San Francisco, her mother’s house somewhere on Fulton in the predominantly black district. Somewhere else in the neighborhood was Melrose Record Shop, where Maya gets a job working alongside a reform Jew and a Christian Scientist. “The record shop was the most complete music shop in the black neighborhood in the Fillmore District.” After marrying a white man who almost made her become estranged from her mother, she’s pushed to give up the record store job (where she met him) because customers flirted with her. When they divorce after Maya realizing everything she likes has been taken from her, she gets a job dancing, which leads to a job singing, which leads to writing and directing and generally being a bad ass. Later, she comes back to SF to visit her mother who is staying with Leo Stein’s widow; Maya has a visceral reaction to the art on Mrs Stein’s walls, crying at the Matisses. Stein says “Your daughter cried because she is an artist.”