Review: Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou

Jennifer Muirhead

“As far as I knew white women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them and Black women worked for them.”

This is the third stand alone volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. I picked up my copy of this book after I heard of this phenomenal woman's passing in May last year but with one thing and another it took me quite a while to get around to actually reading it. When I did I wondered why I had waited so long. I absolutely love reading autobiographies or biographies of people who didn't seem to have a clue what they were doing and yet still eventually came out okay. It's like vegan macaroni and cheese for the soul (I'm not the chicken soup type). With the enormously diverse range of experiences, both good and bad, in her life Maya Angelou ticks that box for me.

In this volume Angelou talks about the beginning of her singing and dancing career. She works as a dancer in a gentlemens' club and as a nightclub singer, which is where she acquired her stage name (born Marguerite Johnson, Maya was a childhood nickname and "Angelou", the French sounding version of her married name, Angelos). From there things took off and she ended up touring Europe as part of the cast of Porgie and Bess, despite having no formal training as a singer. I admire the way she fought for Calypso to be taken as seriously as other types of folk music and how she wasn't afraid to try her hand at just about anything. When travelling overseas she sets about learning the language of each country she visited just because she can. She also struggles to balance providing for her son with spending time with him. As a mother I shudder at how hard it must have been having to leave him with a carer all week because she couldn't have him at home while working long hours. I suppose we all do what we have to.

In this part of her life Maya seems to take on not only a new name but a new sense of her own power and influence on other people, especially men, through her music and personality. She also reflects on issues of race, distrusting the motives of a white woman who offers her a job and facing her mother's disappointment at her marrying a white man.

This book also reminded me of how little I know about black American culture (about as embarrassingly little as I know about indigenous Australian cultures) so I may try and mix a few more books by women of colour into my TBR pile in future.

Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is a mixture of funny, sad and inspiring moments. Maya Angelou has led a fascinating life and I will definitely pick up the next instalment, The Heart of a Woman.

Published: 1976

Rated: ★★ ★ ★ ☆

#nonfiction #autobiography

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