NEW YORK — Writer, actor, dancer. Activist, teacher, composer. In the melange of Maya Angelou’s 85 years is also daughter, of two women who deserved one with a good memory.
So Angelou writes in her latest literary memoir, “Mom & Me & Mom,” a sweet ode to “Lady,” her mother Vivian Baxter, and “Momma,” her paternal grandmother Annie Henderson, who took her in at age 3 in tiny, segregated Stamps, Ark., and returned her at age 13, when the time was right.
Baxter, rough-and-tumble poor from St. Louis, and Henderson, refined believer in southern etiquette, are both long gone but figure big in Angelou’s legendary life.
The fierce and fun Vivian was Angelou’s abandoner and, later, her most loyal protector. She and Annie are familiar to admirers of the poet and spinner of autobiographical fiction. It’s Angelou’s eighth book to unravel her often painful and tumultuous life, including the 1969 National Book Award winner “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” chronicling her rape as a girl that left her mute for five years.
Angelou lost her beloved older brother Bailey in 2000, after his slide into drugs, and her mother in 1991, at age 79 or 85, depending on who’s doing the counting, joked Angelou in a recent telephone interview from her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she has lived part-time for more than 30 years while on the faculty of Wake Forest University.
Her son, Guy, whom she had at age 17, remains with us, enduring years on crutches after numerous surgeries for spinal injuries he suffered in an auto accident.
A conversation with Maya Angelou:
AP: Where does this book fit into your cycle of autobiography? Is this a completion of sorts?
Angelou: Well, I don’t want to say that because it sounds like it’s The End. I don’t want to do that to myself. I had been trying to write it for about 25 or 30 years, but it wasn’t ready to be written. I wasn’t ready to write it. When it came it was right. My mom had said she wanted my brother to write it, and I knew he wasn’t going to. I’m sorry to say drugs had so taken him over.
AP: This is a story about forgiveness. How did you come to that point with your mother?
Angelou: I began to like her. I liked the fact that she didn’t laugh at people. She had everything. You know, she was pretty, she was young, she had money. She had respect, and when she saw people who were poor, who were crippled or uncomfortable in their skin, she didn’t laugh at them, and I liked that in her. It was a big heart.
AP: You were not happy with the notion of leaving your grandmother at 13 to return to your mother in California.
Angelou: It was terrible, because she (Annie) really loved me. She never once kissed me the whole time in Stamps, that I can remember, but she loved me. She was so proud of me, and the fact that I was a mute and had my own problems, she never took the position that, ‘Oh, well you’ve been so injured.’ She’d say, ‘You’re gonna be a teacher. Sister you’re gonna teach all over this world.’ She taught me how to be a victor.
AP: What are some of the revelations in this book, about yourself and your relationship with your mother?
Angelou: Well, I didn’t know I loved her. I just didn’t know I loved her, until I loved her. I’m not trying to be clever or mystic, but I mean I admired her. I got on with her. But I guess when I really began to see that I loved her, it was because she could make me laugh. And she had once tried so hard to make me laugh and I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I was pregnant when I realized that I loved her. She just didn’t do anything that girls’ mothers did. She didn’t put me down. She didn’t make fun of me.
AP: You went through a lot as a young, single mother. What role did your mother play during those years?
Angelou: At one point, Guy was about 3, maybe 4, and I had told him never to go into my purse. Every penny had to be accounted for as far as I was concerned. And I found one day he was chewing gum, so I asked him where did you get the gum. He said out of your purse. So I said you went into my purse? ‘Yes, I wanted the gum.’
So I got a switch from a tree outside, and I pulled his pants down and I spanked him with the switch. And he just looked at me and said, ‘But don’t you love me anymore? Ain’t this your baby?’ And of course it just broke my heart. I said, ‘Well I hope you’ll never do that again.’ He said, ‘And I hope you won’t, either.’
I said, ‘You had lip and I’ve just given you a seeing-to and you still have lip?’ And he said, ‘I mean, do you realize how big you are. I’m only 4 years old or something.’ My mother, who was in the house, heard all of this and she asked, ‘So what will you do?’ I said, ‘Well I’ll never hit him again.’ She said, ‘That’s smart.’
AP: How did your upbringing affect you as a parent?
Angelou: Guy Johnson is a wonder. He’s been physically challenged. He was paralyzed from his neck down at one point. The doctors had told me your son, he will never move again, he will never walk again. I said my son will walk out of this hospital.
I walked into the intensive care and my son said, ‘Mom, that which I feared is upon me.’ I can hear it now and this is 40 years later. He said, ‘Mom, I have to ask you a favor no one should ever ask their mother. I know I’m your only child. I know you love me, but if there’s no recovery I refuse to live as a talking head. Will you pull the plug?’
I started shouting. At the top of my voice I said, ‘In that case, recovery. I see you swimming. I see you walking. I see you dancing. And I thank God for it, and I’m claiming it loudly.’ And he said, ‘Mom, please, control yourself. There’s some sick people in this place,’ which of course made me laugh. He did walk out of the hospital.
AP: Were you channeling Vivian at the time?
Angelou: I guess so.
AP: Is that her gift to you?
Angelou: I guess so. I never thought of that until this minute. I guess so.
AP: Her strength?
AP: Where would you be without it?
Angelou: I don’t know. I can’t even think of what I’d be without it. All I’ve done. I mean, you know, it sounds like I’m bragging. Well maybe I am, but I don’t mean it, but you know a black girl growing up in a village like Stamps, Ark. You know, I just look at all the things, and so much of it is because of Vivian Baxter. She said if you want it, get it. Do it.