65 pages 2 hours read

Maya Angelou

The Heart of a Woman

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1981

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Important Quotes

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“The ancient spiritual could have been a theme song of the United States in 1957. We were a-moverin’ to, fro, up, down and often in concentric circles. We created a maze of contradictions. Black and white Americans danced a fancy and often dangerous do-si-do. In our steps forward, abrupt turns, sharp spins and reverses, we became our own befuddlement.”

(Introduction, Page 7)

Maya Angelou opens this volume with a quotation, not from another literary text, but rather from a traditional African American spiritual. One of the main concerns of this episode in her autobiography is Angelou’s transition from musical performance to literature, and she will repeatedly worry that her role in show-business is compromising her literary and intellectual “seriousness.” At the same time, however, the fundamental role of music in African American culture and activism repeatedly emerges in the text.

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“She painted a picture of a lovely land, pastoral and bucolic, then added eyes bulged and mouths twisted, into the Southern landscape. Guy broke into her song. ‘What’s a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?’ Billy looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. ‘It means when the crackers are killing the n*****s. It means when they take a little n***** like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means.’ The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me.”

(Introduction, Page 14)

Billy Holiday, who was already ill from years of substance abuse, emerges as a deeply embittered figure with highly erratic behavior. During her short friendship with Angelou, Holiday makes an effort to tone down her language and reactions around Guy, but during this scene, after Guy repeatedly interrupts her while she is singing the song “Strange Fruit,” she suddenly snaps at him, painting a sadistic picture of racial violence. Angelou does not speculate on the source of Holiday’s sudden rage or express any judgment on the singer for her reaction. A parallel emerges between the scenes in the song and Angelou’s house. In the song, the natural beauty of the Southern landscape is sharply and abruptly contrasted with the horror of the lynchings.