65 pages 2 hours read

Maya Angelou

The Heart of a Woman

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1981

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Summary and Study Guide


The Heart of a Woman is the fourth installment of the African American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou’s seven-volume autobiography. It was published in 1981 and recounts Angelou’s life between 1957 and 1962, as she moved from California to New York City and then to Egypt and Ghana, raising her teenage son, publishing her first literary works, and becoming active in the civil rights movement. The second half of the book describes her year-long relationship with the South African freedom fighter, Vusumzi Make. A work of autobiographical fiction, in which personal growth is constantly related to developments in the broader political world, The Heart of a Woman explores themes including motherhood, authorship, and African American identity. The first volume of Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was nominated for a 1970 National Book Award and adapted into a film in 1979. In 1992, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration. The Heart of A Woman was named as a selection in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club in 1997. Her 2014 poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” was written at the request of the United Nations and read at its 50th anniversary.

Content Warning: The text contains references to racial and gender-based discrimination, which some readers may find distressing. It also includes profanity and racist language; the author’s use of the n-word has been obscured throughout the guide. Outdated language and terms are replicated only in direct quotations and in official organization titles.

Plot Summary

The Heart of a Woman takes its title from the 1916 poem of the same title by the female Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson. The events depicted in The Heart of a Woman begin shortly after the end of Angelou’s previous autobiography, Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976). At the beginning of the narrative, Angelou and her 12-year-old son, Guy, are living in a houseboat commune. However, Angelou makes the decision to move into a rented house in order to provide more structure and stability for Guy. During this period, Angelou befriends the famous jazz singer Billy Holiday, who is very taken with Guy and gets into the habit of singing and talking to him in the evenings. When she hears Angelou sing, she predicts that she will be famous, but not as a singer.

Angelou moves to New York, where she begins to grow frustrated with her career in show business and joins the Harlem Writers Guild. She also becomes increasingly politically active. After hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at an event, she organizes the “Cabaret for Freedom” to promote and raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or SCLC. She is later invited to become the Northern Coordinator for this organization.

As Guy grows into his teens, Angelou struggles to balance the need to nurture his autonomy and maturity and her desire to protect him from the racist society in which they are living. Shortly after the move to New York, she intervenes on his behalf to defend him from a gang member by whom he is being threatened. Guy is also increasingly politically active, becoming involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and expressing support for Fidel Castro.

Angelou becomes engaged to a bail bondsman, Thomas Allen. The two are due to be married, when Angelou is introduced to the South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make. She leaves Allen and agrees to travel to Africa with Make. Accompanying Make to a conference in London, she meets a group of African freedom fighters’ wives. She admires their courage and enjoys a feeling of sisterly community and shared origins and experience.

Horrified at the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader of the Congo, Angelou is deeply moved when she hears a speech by Malcolm X at a rally of the Nation of Islam. Together with a group of her fellow members of the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage, she organizes a protest at the United Nations Assembly and Belgian Consulate. The demonstration turns violent and is publicly denounced by a number of Black community leaders. Angelou requests an interview with Malcolm X and is disappointed that he will not endorse any further demonstrations by the group.

Angelou performs in Jean Genet’s The Blacks, despite feeling skeptical about the play’s message and the motivations of its predominantly white production team and audience. She eventually leaves the production when she is denied payment for composing the musical score.

After being evicted from their New York Apartment due to Make’s non-payment of their rent, Angelou moves to Cairo, Egypt, to be with her husband. Due to Make’s continued extravagance and poor management of their finances, she seeks employment and becomes the first female editor of the English-language Arab Observer. Despite her admiration for his political courage, Angelou grows increasingly frustrated with Make’s infidelity and extravagance, and she decides to leave him.

Angelou takes a job in Liberia, and she and her son travel to Accra, where Guy has been accepted at the University of Ghana. When Guy is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident, Angelou begins working as an administrator at the university. Guy makes a full recovery, and The Heart of a Woman closes with him leaving for college and Angelou reflecting on her new life to come.