With All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
, beloved American author Maya Angelou presents the fifth volume in her autobiographical series of books that began with the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
. First published in 1986, this installment chronicles the years 1962 to 1965, which find Angelou living in Ghana. There, she nurses her son through a long and painful recovery after a serious car accident as she adjusts to her new life and work in a foreign country. The book is presented in a series of episodes connected by Angelou's exploration of her identities as both an African and an African American.All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes
begins where the previous volume in the series, The Heart of a Woman
, leaves off. Angelou and her adult son, Guy, have just moved from Cairo, Egypt, to Accra, Ghana. Guy is about to enroll at the University of Ghana when he gets into a car accident while driving an intoxicated friend home. Guy is critically injured, and his mother documents his painstaking recovery. Struggling under the stress of the painful rehabilitation process and the pressures of living in an unknown land, Angelou becomes deeply depressed. She is comforted by the American actor, writer, and civil rights activist Julian Mayfield, who, in turn, introduces her to Ghanaian playwright and director Efua Sutherland. The two women form an instant bond, and Sutherland becomes a main source of strength and support for Angelou.
As Guy comes back, slowly, from the brink of death, Angelou lands a job at the University of Ghana. She settles into her adopted country, increasingly captivated by its people and landscape, and eventually traveling extensively throughout the country and into neighboring regions. She also forges relationships with her roommates and finds a makeshift family among a group of American émigrés, who understand better than anyone the cultural adjustments she is going through. Throughout her travels and her ever-expanding circle of friends and acquaintances, Angelou involves herself in the political life of Ghana, throwing her support behind President Kwame Nkrumah. She also strikes up friendships with poet and diplomat Kwesi Brew and tribal head Nana Nketsia.
At one point, while Angelou is on a journey further into West Africa, she is told that her looks, bearing, and behavior are all signs she is an ancestral member of the Bambara tribe. This information helps Angelou shed more light on the African aspect of her identity. Nevertheless, at the same time, she also sees the universality of certain aspects of both American and West African traditions.
Meanwhile, Angelou recognizes the boundaries of her relationship with Guy. She reminds herself that Guy is an adult, and while he is currently in a vulnerable position and needs her support, he is still, at the end of the day, a grown man. She makes a concerted effort to respect Guy as an adult and as the chief decision maker in his own life. She vows to love and support him all she can, but she also takes a conscious step back in order to encourage his growth and autonomy as a self-sufficient human being.
Angelou maintains a romantic life as well. She dates a few different men. One of them is a Ghanaian who suggests that she embrace the native custom of polygamy and become his second wife. Angelou refuses the offer, and while all of her romances are interesting diversions for her, nothing very serious develops with any of her suitors.
Though Angelou remains aware of American culture and politics, her support for the nonviolent practices of Martin Luther King, Jr., starts to wane; Angelou had previously worked with King and helped him organize some of his earlier civil rights work in America. Still, when he makes his historic march on Washington, D.C., in 1963, she and her friends hold a simultaneous demonstration in Ghana. The event turns into a celebration of the life and work of civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who died the night before. In 1964, Angelou becomes a supporter of Malcolm X, meeting with him during his visit to Ghana. He asks her to return to America to help him in his civil rights work.
Though she and her roommates are uncomfortable doing so, they eventually hire a native boy named Kojo to clean their home. Angelou develops an unexpected bond with the boy, and she becomes a sort of mother figure to him.
Angelou understands that her relationship with Kojo is a substitute for her evolving relationship with Guy. She and Guy butt heads often in their attempts to separate themselves from one another and establish healthy boundaries. Later in the book, he starts a romantic relationship with an older woman—much to Angelou's ire—and encounters issues trying to get accepted into the University of Ghana. Both of these challenges offer Angelou opportunities to step back and allow Guy to make his own decisions—and his own mistakes.
During Angelou's time in Ghana, an American theatrical company offers her a role in a touring production of Jean Genet's play, The Blacks
. She accepts, portraying the White Queen during the Venice and Berlin tour stops. She performs alongside some of the most famous African American actors of the twentieth century. While the show is in Berlin, Angelou has a jarring experience after attending a breakfast with a very wealthy—and very racist—German family.
In the end, Angelou feels her time in Africa has come to a close. She decides to return to America, and Guy chooses to stay behind. He, along with many of the new friends she has made in Ghana, sees her off at the airport. As she leaves, her exodus reminds Angelou of her African ancestors and how they left their homes centuries ago: in chains and in bondage. However, Angelou is a free, independent woman, ready to set the course for her next chapter.