In the opening of her latest autobiography, “Mom & Me & Mom,” Maya Angelou writes that she is frequently asked how she became who she is today — a poet, playwright, director, historian, and civil rights activist, among other things. But the real question is how she survived at all.
Angelou has been writing about her life for decades, most notably in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and readers of her earlier volumes will be familiar with the violence and brutality she suffered in her youth.
“Mom & Me & Mom” broadly revisits some of the painful incidents of her childhood, but as the title indicates, the focus is on Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) and her mother, Vivian Baxter, an extraordinary woman whom Maya and her brother, Bailey, barely knew for the first decade of their lives. “I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore,” Angelou writes.
In 1924, Vivian, “a startling beauty,” married a handsome soldier, Bailey Johnson. They had a son, and Angelou was born in 1928. But the marriage was short-lived. “They were matches and gasoline,” she writes. “They even argued about how they were to break up.” Neither parent felt capable of caring for their two toddlers, so the children were shipped off to live with their father’s mother in Stamps, Ark. “I loved her and I liked her and I felt safe under the umbrella of her love,” Angelou writes of her grandmother.
When her brother turned 14, “he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated south.” The children were sent to San Francisco to live with their mother. Initially, Angelou is daunted by Vivian, a formidable woman with movie-star looks. She carries a pistol, and, with her second husband, runs a gambling operation that occasionally lands her in jail. Angelou slowly warms to Vivian, whose fierce if unconventional love wins her over.
Page by page, Angelou’s story is astonishing as she recalls her difficult adolescence, immersing herself in literature while getting to know her charismatic mother. Amid moments of bonding with her mother are episodes of ugly racism and violence, including a vicious beating by a boyfriend and a rape that would result in the birth of her only child, a son named Guy, just after she graduated from high school. Somehow, the young Angelou perseveres, free of self-pity and armed with remarkable wisdom and patience, even through dark years of living in dire poverty. She credits her mother with inspiring her resilience: “Trust your brain to suggest a solution, then have the courage to follow through,” Vivian once advised.
Angelou’s rise to success is so unlikely it defies belief: winning a scholarship to study dance; becoming the first African-American female cable car conductor; touring Europe in a production of “Porgy and Bess”; performing in theater; teaching at the University of Ghana; and of course, becoming an internationally famous author.
“Mom & Me and Mom” is a story of not just one but two heroic women, as Angelou’s steely determination shows the influence of her extraordinary mother, whose support of her was unconditional.
Many years later, long after Angelou has achieved fame and fortune, Vivian lay dying of lung cancer in a North Carolina hospital. Angelou recalls telling her affectionately, “You were a terrible mother of small children, but there has never been anyone greater than you as a mother of a young adult.”
There is a slightly frustrating lack of chronology in this book, and several odd lacunae in the narrative — but life is messy, and so is memory. What matters is that “Mom & Me & Mom” is a superb account of reconciliation, forgiveness, and survival. Angelou’s prose is blunt and often funny. She tells it like it is, and as a storyteller she is surely one of our best.
Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of “Nom de Plume:
A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,” can be reached at email@example.com.