This volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies starts when she was 17 and ends a few years later.
During World War II, so many men were fighting overseas that there were more job openings than applicants. It was possible for Black people to get good-paying jobs. But when the soldiers came home, jobs became scarce again.
Rita (what Angelou called herself) at 17 was unmarried with a two-month-old son. Her mother urged her to continue her education; Rita refused, opting instead to go to work. After one week of being a bus girl in the cafeteria of the telephone company, she quit and found a new job as a cook in a Creole Café. She fell in love with a handsome sailor named Curly who told her from the beginning he had a sweetheart back home whom he would marry. When he left, Rita was devastated. At her brother’s advice, she started over again, moving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
She dropped in at her aunt’s house, but her relatives did not intuit that Rita had meant to stay with them. They thought she was just passing through.
Rita moved on to San Diego and found lodging with a woman who would also watch her baby. She found work as a waitress at a seedy club full of prostitutes. A pair of prostitutes were also lovers, and they badgered Rita into coming to their house for dinner. The evening did not go well, and Rita felt so insulted that she wanted revenge. The couple were about to lose their house, because their landlord objected to their lifestyle. Rita hatched a scheme.
She told the women she would rent the house and put all the utilities in her name. They would live there and turn tricks. She would drum up business for them, enlisting the help of the white taxi drivers. They and she would get a cut. Can you believe it? Maya Angelou was a teenage madam! Her little business ran smoothly and profitably for a while, and then the women started disobeying her rules. She handed her business over to the bouncer who was assisting her, but when the women threatened to tell the police about her, she fled to her grandmother’s home in Arkansas, where she had grown up.
She no longer fit in that plain little town after being in the big city. She didn’t read people well, and couldn’t tell that they were making fun of her behind her back. She made the mistake of behaving toward white people in a manner that they found offensive and put her on the KKK’s radar. Her grandmother sent her and little Guy away.
Maya returned to her mother’s house, and they brainstormed possible careers. Maya chose the Army, but just before she was to enter Officer Candidate School, she was called in and accused of being a Communist. The school where she had taken dance and drama lessons when she was fourteen and fifteen years old was on the House Un-American Activities list. She was no longer suitable to be in the Army.
She got a job as a waitress and got through it by smoking marijuana. Then a man named R.L. Poole asked her to be his professional dance partner. They became Poole and Rita. She quit her waitress job so she could concentrate on her dancing. They had some initial success, but then R.L. reconciled with his former partner, and fired Rita.
Rita’s next job was a fry cook. She found a woman named Mary to care for her son around the clock. At the restaurant she met an older married man, a gambler named L.D. Tolbrook who was well-dressed and gave her money. One day he gave her $100 and told her to buy some young clothes — blouses and colorful skirts, low shoes and anklets, a ribbon in her hair. Like a schoolgirl. They had an affair, then he told her he’d lost everything — $5,000 — gambling, and he owed some big boys $2,000. He needed her to make some money for him, fast, so that he could pay off the mob and divorce his wife. Then they could be together forever. So Rita became a prostitute.
L.D. berated her for not making enough money. She promised to work harder. Then she learned her mother was sick, so she left her son with the babysitter and went to care for her mother. She had no way to contact L.D., so she asked her landlord to tell him she went to her mother’s.
Days later, she headed back to pick up her son and take her to her mother’s, but the babysitter’s house was boarded up. A neighbor said she had moved away and taken the boy with her — said Rita had given him to her.
Rita went to L.D.’s house for help, but L.D. was furious with her for coming to his house and speaking to his wife. Rita knew Mary had a brother in Bakersfield, so that’s where she headed. She found Mary, who tearfully gave Guy up.
Her next job was managing a restaurant in Oakland. Her boss also had boxers, and when she went to her first match, she objected to the brutality and walked out. She was fired.
A man she’d met at the restaurant, Troubadour Martin, approached her and asked if he could use her place to sell women’s clothing. He’d give her a commission. Rita agreed, but wished Troubadour would marry her. Eventually she began pressuring him, and he revealed to her what she suspected, that he was a heroin addict. She broke off their relationship, personal and business, and returned to her mother’s house.
I’ve given you just the highlights of the book. All this happened to her in the span of a few short years. I can hardly believe she had all these experiences. And what a remarkable woman she turned out to be.