Tobias Wolff's memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army show us the flip side of the American dream in the nuclear/post-nuclear-family age, and the Malcolm X/Alex Haley collaborative construction The Autobiography of Malcolm X composes a multifaceted portrait of a mind fashioning and refashioning itself in constant response to a profoundly uneasy home-nation, but Maya Angelou's series of memoirs seem to do all this and more.
Maya Angelou BirthBorn in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928 and seeming to live more lives in America and abroad than six books could possibly contain, Maya Angelou is one of our country's true renaissance women (I find it interesting that her name so closely resembles that of the quintessential Renaissance man himself, Michelangelo). Angelou has been a singer, dancer, actor, director, songwriter, journalist, educator, lecturer, poet, playwright, memoirist, and mother; she's also been deeply involved in civil rights activities and politics; and in her leaner years she worked as a fry cook, a streetcar conductor, and even as a prostitute and madame. Her stature reaching incredible heights when she read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's first inauguration, Angelou's is without question one of the most diverse and remarkable lives of the past and current century. In fact, when I read her first five memoirs in my youth, I felt that in each subsequent book I was discovering an entirely new America. Her story is our story, and it's as vast and eclectic as we are.
In 1969, partially at the suggestion of James Baldwin, Angelou wrote and published her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as a way to deal with her grief over two major losses. Having become close friends with Malcolm X in Ghana just a year before his assassination in 1965, and then losing her friend Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to another assassination just after he'd asked her to organize a march in 1968, Angelou delved into her deepest self to create an unforgettable self-portrait. Rather than exploring her recent losses, however, she focused in her first volume (which wasn't envisioned as the first in a series) on the first seventeen years of her life.