Gather Together in My Name
(1974), the second of author Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies, covers the three years right after the events of her more famous autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
. Although the book continues some of the same themes, such as Angelou’s loneliness, and received positive reviews, overall it was not as critically acclaimed as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The story begins in the years following WWII. Sixteen-year-old Angelou, otherwise known as “Rita” or “Marguerite,” has just given birth to an illegitimate son and lives with her mother and stepfather in San Francisco. There is optimism within the black community that perhaps with the hard-won victory in the world war and the defense of the United States, racism may be on the decline. That optimism soon disappears when reality sets in; in this disappointment, Angelou must figure out how to take care of herself and her son.
Angelou goes through a number of jobs and relationships in search of stability and a husband. Each new romantic relationship is as disappointing as the last as men take advantage of her. Still, she waits for her prince charming to fall into her life.
For one of her jobs, Angelou becomes a manager for two lesbian prostitutes. When the possibility of arrest and losing her son becomes apparent, she runs to her grandmother’s house in Arkansas. Angelou and her grandmother have very different ideologies when it comes to race; her grandmother beats her after Angelou confronts two white women at a department store. Angelou and her son return to San Francisco to be with her mother. She attempts to enlist in the Army but is rejected because of her time at the California Labor School in her early teenage years. One of her lovers, R.L. Poole, is a dancer and teachers Angelou to dance. She enjoys a short stint as a professional dancer until Poole returns to his former lover and ditches Angelou.
Angelou meets and falls in love with a gambler, L.D. Tolbrook, who tricks her into prostitution. When her mother is hospitalized and her sister-in-law passes away, she returns to live with her mom. She leaves her son with a caretaker named Big Mary. When she comes back for him, Big Mary and her son have disappeared. Desperate for help, she confronts Tolbrook. She realizes that Tolbrook has been taking advantage of her and finds her son in Bakersfield.
By the end of the book, Angelou is dejected, exhausted, and defenseless against whatever tragedy life throws at her next. When she meets a drug addict, he recognizes her defeat and shows her the horrible effects of drug addiction. This interaction steels Angelou to put her life back together for the sake of herself and for her son, who is now three years old.
The book continues several themes introduced in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Motherhood factors into the story frequently as Angelou is a new teenage mother. She also has a strained relationship with her own mother after a rocky childhood but depends on her increasingly for emotional support.
Like all of her autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name
explores Angelou’s definition of what it means to be a black woman in the United States. The entire series covers decades of her life, but this book covers the years immediately following WWII. She connects her story with the overall historical context of the time, including the incidents and policies of racism in the U.S.
Angelou’s encounters with racism are one aspect of the larger theme of identity. In this book, she falls into poverty and crime as a single mother. At the same time, she must combat isolation and limited opportunities to take care of herself and her son. By the age of nineteen, she has experienced more hardship than many people do in their entire lives. The stick-to-itiveness she discovers along the way and the ease at which she draws lessons from mistakes cements her identity as a hard-working black woman, a mother, and a writer.
While critics mostly agree that Gather Together in My Name
is better written than its predecessor, they take issue with the lack of focus compared to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
which primarily focuses on when she was raped at eight years old. This book is episodic and disjointed in comparison, covering several different topics without as much narrative cohesion. Physically, the story takes place in more locations as well, leading some critics to label the book as a travel narrative.
Lastly, critics seem to take Angelou’s honesty at face value in the first book more than this one and subsequent autobiographies. Her decisions tend to need more clarification in this and later books.