A major theme in Traveling Shoes , one that many critics overlook, is Angelou's love for her son. The theme of motherhood is one of Angelou's most consistent themes throughout her series of autobiographies, although it does not overwhelm this book as it does in Gather Together in My Name and Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas . Motherhood is present in many of the book's subthemes—her relationship with her houseboy Kojo, her delight in being called "Auntie" by many African children, and her feelings toward "Mother Africa". Traveling Shoes begins with Guy's accident, his long recovery, and his mother's reaction to it, thus universalizing the fear of every parent—the death of a child. The main character is a mother of a grown son, so liberation from the daily responsibilities of motherhood is emphasized, but it is complicated by the recognition that part of motherhood is letting go, something Angelou struggles with. Confrontations between Angelou and Guyare minimal, consisting of their conflict over his choice of dating a much-older woman and of his demands for autonomy after she returns from the Genet tour. Angelou seems to vacillate between wanting to supervise him and wanting to let go throughout this book. In this way, as Lupton says, the motherhood theme, like the identity theme, is "dual in nature".
Like many of her previous books, Angelou is conflicted about her feelings towards Guy, and is skilled at expressing it in this book. One way she expresses her conflict is through her reluctant relationship with Kojo. She compares her feelings for Kojo with the pain of childbirth, and he serves as substitute for Guy. At the end of the book Angelou leaves Guy in Africa to continue his education, suggesting, as Lupton puts it, the "apparent end of the mother/son plot". Lupton also reports that some reviewers have criticized Angelou for "the willful cutting of the maternal ties that she established throughout the series", but Angelou implies in Traveling Shoes that motherhood is never over.
Angelou's exploration of her African and African-American identities is an important theme in Traveling Shoes . The alliances and relationships with those she meets in Ghana contribute to Angelou's identity and growth. Her experiences in Ghana helped her come to terms with her personal and historical past, and by the end of the book she is ready to return to America with a deeper understanding of both the African and American parts of her character. McPherson calls Angelou's parallels and connections between Africa and America her "double-consciousness", which contribute to her understanding of herself.
Angelou is able to recognize similarities between African and African-American culture; as Lupton puts it, the "blue songs, shouts, and gospels" she has grown up with in America "echo the rhythms of West Africa". She recognizes the connections between African and American Black cultures, including the children's games, the folklore, the spoken and non-verbal languages, the food, sensibilities, and behavior. She connects the behavior of many African mother figures, especially their generosity, with her grandmother's behaviors. In one of the most significant sections of Traveling Shoes , Angelou recounts an encounter with a West African woman who recognizes her, on the basis of her appearance, as a member of the Bambara group of West Africa. As Lupton states, these and other experiences in Ghana demonstrate her maturity, as a mother who is able to let go of her adult son, as a woman who is no longer dependent upon a man, and as an American who is able to "perceive the roots of her identity" and how they affect her personality.
Angelou comes to terms with her difficult past, both as a descendant of Africans taken forcibly to America as slaves and as an African-American who has experienced racism. As she tells interviewer Connie Martinson, she brought her son to Ghana to protect him from the negative effects of racism because she did not think he had the tools to withstand them. She remains in Accra after his accident because it was traumatic for her as well—so traumatic it reduces her to silence, similar to her muteness after she was raped as a child in Caged Bird . Her friend Julian Mayfield introduces her to Efua Sutherland, who becomes Angelou's "Sister friend" and allows her to cry out her pain, grief, and fear, something Angelou later admitted went against her American upbringing of emotional restraint.
Racism, an important theme in all of Angelou's autobiographies, continues to be important in this book, but she has matured in the way she deals with it in Traveling Shoes . For the first time in Angelou's life, she "does not feel threatened by racial hate" in Ghana. She finds a strong support system there, and as Hagen states, she "has come far from the mute, shy little girl of Stamps, Arkansas". As Hagen states, Angelou "is not yet ready to toss off the stings of prejudice, but tolerance and even a certain understanding can be glimpsed". This is demonstrated in Angelou's treatment of the "genocidal involvement of Africans in slave-trading", something that is often overlooked or misrepresented by other Black writers. Angelou is taught an important lesson about combating racism by Malcolm X, who compares it to a mountain in which everyone's efforts, even the efforts of Shirley Graham DuBois, whom Angelou resents, is needed.
Angelou learns lessons about herself and about racism throughout Traveling Shoes , even during her brief tour of Venice and Berlin for The Blacks revival. She revives her passion for African-American culture as she associates with other African-Americans for the first time since moving to Ghana. She compares her experiences of American racism with Germany's history of racial prejudice and military aggression. The verbal violence of the folk tales shared during her luncheon with her German hosts and Israeli friend is as significant to Angelou as physical violence, to the point that she becomes ill. Angelou's first-hand experience with fascism, as well as the racist sensibilities of the German family she visits, "help shape and broaden her constantly changing vision" regarding racial prejudice.
The journey, or travel, is a common theme in American autobiography as a whole; as McPherson states, it is something of a national myth to Americans as a people. This is also the case for African-American autobiography, which has its roots in the slave narrative. Like those narratives that focus on the writers' search for freedom from bondage, modern African-American autobiographers such as Angelou seek to develop "an authentic self" and the freedom to find it in their community. McPherson states, "The journey to a distant goal, the return home, and the quest which involves the voyage out, achievement, and return are typical patterns in Black autobiography".
The travel motif is seen throughout Angelou's series of autobiographies, emphasizing what Lupton describes as Angelou's "continuing journey of the self". Angelou continues the travel motif in Traveling Shoes , as evidenced in the book's title, but her primary motivation in living in Africa, as she told interviewer George Plimpton, was "trying to get home". Angelou not only relates her own journey of an African-American woman searching for a home, but the journeys of other Black expatriates at the time, whom McPherson compares to the descriptions of white expatriates in Europe in the 1920s by Ernest Hemingway and Henry James.
Angelou was one of over two hundred Black American expatriates living in Accra at the time. She was able to find a small group of expatriates, humorously dubbed "the Revolutionary Returnees", who became her main source of support as she struggled with her place in African culture—"the conflicting feelings of being 'home' yet simultaneously being 'homeless,' cut off from America without tangible roots in their adopted black nation". For many Black Americans, it was the first time they were able to positively identify with Africa. Angelou describes the group of Black American expatriates as "a little group of Black folks, looking for a home". Reviewer Jackie Gropman has stated that Angelou presents her readers with "a wealth of information and penetrating impressions of the proud, optimistic new country of Ghana". Angelou also presents a "romanticized" view of Africa. She "falls in love" with Ghana and wishes to settle into her new home "as a baby nuzzles in a mother's arms".
Angelou soon discovers that her fellow Black expatriates "share similar delusions" and that their feelings towards Ghana and its people are not reciprocated. Lupton states, "Angelou's alliance with the African-American community often focuses on their indignation over the Ghanaians' refusal to fully welcome them". Angelou uses the parallel demonstration to King's 1963 March on Washington to demonstrate both her and her fellow expatriates' tenuous relationship with Africa and her desire for full citizenship and assimilation, an "unattainable goal that falls outside of her desire for assimilation" and something she can never acquire in Ghana. Not only is Angelou a Black American, whether she likes it or not, "she is a Black American in exile". Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his review of Traveling Shoes , states that Angelou is unable to experience a connection with what Angelou calls the "soul" of Africa, and that Angelou speculates that only the American Black, forcibly displaced and taken from the home of her ancestors, can truly understand "that home is the place where one is created".
Angelou's issues are resolved at the end of Traveling Shoes when she decides to leave Guy to continue his education in Accra and return to America. The final scene of the book is at the Accra airport, with Angelou surrounded by Guy and her friends as they wish her farewell. Even though she "forsakes her new embraced alliance with Mother Africa," she claims she is "not sad" to be leaving. She calls her departure a "second leave-taking", and compares it to the last time she left her son, with his grandmother in Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas when he was a child, and to the forced departure from Africa by her ancestors. As Lupton states, "Angelou's journey from Africa back to America is in certain ways a restatement of the historical phase known as mid-passage, when slaves were brutally transported in ships from West Africa to the so-called New World".