November 26, 2014
Maya Angelou’s travelogue All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) has been read as a quintessential (African-)American story of self-discovery, with critics celebrating Angelou’s ability to find her own identity within or against prescriptive images of womanhood and blackness. This article argues, quite the contrary, that Maya’s ‘success story’ is due to a constant deferral of identification, which results from a reluctance to fully identify with any image imposed from without or within and thus to become complicit in one’s (self-)containment. To highlight the method and results of Maya’s self-deferral, this article focuses on a central episode in the travelogue reporting an acting trip to Berlin where Maya jokingly sets the stage for a confrontation of the Black, the White, and the Jew. The article describes Maya’s behavior as an act of trickstery, in the sense conceptualized by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. based on African-American folklore, and further uses the trickster episode to illustrate, as well as to challenge, Gates’ theory of signifyin(g) as accounting for the discrete black difference of African-American literature.