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Maya Angelou’s Memoirs in the “Gastronomic Contact Zone”: Seriality and Citizenship

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 1, Summer 2012
pp. 101-126 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0007

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This article posits Maya Angelou’s discussions of recipes, food, memories, and culinary practices in her memoirs as a compelling way to think about citizenship: her representations of the serial, material realities of everyday life—in written and oral tradition, the kitchen, the family archive, or the scrapbook—have implications for both home and nation.

Content is of great importance, but we must not underestimate the value of style. That is, attention must be paid to not only what is said but how it is said; to what we wear, as well as how we wear it. In fact, we should be aware of all we do and of how we do all that we do.

—Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

Maya Angelou is often criticized for what some scholars and reviewers believe is her evasion of a political position, given that taking a political position is often expected of African American life writers. Hilton Als of the New Yorker, for example, argues that A Song Flung Up to Heaven in particular, and Angelou’s writing in general, “strays far from the radicalism of her contemporaries” and instead presents the “homespun, and sometimes oddly prudish story of a black woman who, when faced with the trials of life, simply makes do.” Als continues, writing that her texts are a “serial soap opera that fascinat[es] in the compulsive way that soap operas do.” The conflation between the “homespun,” the daily, and serialized soap opera serve to distinguish her texts from those that fall more squarely in the tradition of autobiography, written by politically active (and visible) men. Measuring Angelou against celebrated writers and activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., however, ignores the fact that Angelou’s autobiographical mode is distinct from theirs. In fact, I argue that the “homespun” qualities of her writing and her emphasis on the everyday are directly related to a Pan-African element in her texts. In particular, I posit Angelou’s discussions of food and culinary practices as a way to think about citizenship, as a “gastronomic contact zone” wherein the everyday practices of eating are transformed into both more political and more confrontational acts (Gardaphé and Xu 7).

In fact, Angelou’s engagement with the serial structures of daily life suggests that “simply mak[ing] do” is far more complicated—and potentially radical—than Als recognizes. Significantly, Lynn Marie Houston argues that “making do” as a practice performed by Caribbean women is “an act of creation using any available resources” (99), a strategy that allows those authors—as well as Angelou—to use examples from their everyday material culture. Like the texts Houston examines, Angelou’s memoirs foreground the everyday in order to make a claim for the seriality of African Americans through contemporary theories of foodways and consumption. By calling attention to the daily and the mundane, Angelou’s serial memoir asks readers to become aware of their own particular social situation and their own embodied realities.

It is significant that, historically, ethnic Americans have been involved in the arenas of food production and services. According to Fred Gardaphé and Wenying Xu, the links between food and ethnicity in the United States are imbued with “historical, social, cultural, economic, political, and psychological significance” (5) and that, in fact, “ethnic Americans have fed and built this nation” (8). Angelou’s use of the culinary as metonym implicates both the domestic and the diaspora; she reveals that she is aware of her position in the African American literary tradition of self-narration, and she extends that tradition through her emphasis on the seriality of self and of nation. Examining the ways in which seriality and memory work using theories about collecting, following Jean-Paul Sartre’s theorizing of social or serial collectivity outlined in Critique of Dialectical Reason and Iris Marion Young’s related idea of gender as seriality, I argue that Angelou’s serial memoir project highlights the social collectivity of African Americans as she grounds seriality in the global implications of culinary practices. Contemporary life writing is not autonomous; rather, it exposes the hyper-relationality of subjectivity. Angelou’s self-referential series goes well...


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