Maya Angelou has lived a life so expansive and extraordinary that, even after seven autobiographies, she still has more stories to tell. Her latest book, Mom & Me & Mom, explores her relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. When Angelou was young, Baxter sent Angelou and her brother away to be raised by their grandmother; years later, she called them back to live with her again, the start of a sometimes fractious but eventually very loving relationship.
Angelou says her familial relationships, particularly with her mother, have been crucial in defining her life. “I’m Maya Angelou — whatever that means to whomever it means — because my mother loved me, and my grandmother loved me, and my brother loved me,” she says. “And they all told me I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
Angelou has carried that tradition of strong familial bonds forward, saying, “I just really want to say that I dedicate this book to my son, who’s the bravest, most courageous and most generous man I’ve ever known. My son, Guy Bailey Johnson.”
Angelou joins NPR’s Rachel Martin to talk about her reunion with her mother, a memorable mother-daughter confrontation and her career as a dancer.
On her early childhood, when she was primarily raised by her grandmother
“At one time in my life, from the time I was 7 until about 13, I didn’t speak. I only spoke to my brother. The reason I didn’t speak, I had been molested and I told the name of the molester to my brother, who told it to my family. The man was put in jail for one day and night, and released. And about three days later the police came over to my mother’s mother’s house, and told her that the man had been found dead, and it seemed he had been kicked to death. They made that pronouncement in my earshot, and I thought my voice killed the man. And so it’s better not to speak. So for six years I didn’t speak.
“I was sent back to my father’s mother who was raising me in Arkansas, and my grandmother said to me, ‘Sister, Mama don’t care what these people say that you must be an idiot or you must be a moron because you can’t speak. Mama don’t care. Mama know when you and the good Lord are ready, sister, you’re gonna teach all over the world.’”
On her reunion with her birth mother, and why she called her ‘Lady’
“Well, she didn’t look like a mother to me. She didn’t remind me of my grandmother, who we called Mama. She wore lipstick. And she had record players and she played music, loudly and danced, in the middle of the dining room floor. She said after a few weeks, ‘You’re going to have to address me,’ and she asked, ‘What would you like to call me?’ I said, ‘I’d like to call you Lady, because you’re very beautiful and you sound like a lady.’ She said, ‘All right, I’ll be Lady, so everyone must address me as Lady from now on.’ So all sorts of people know her only as Lady.
“But after a few years she won me. She won me over because she was kind. And then she was also funny. So I liked all that. And she just won me over. And then I heard myself calling her Mother, and before I knew it I was calling her Mom.”
On a confrontation with her mother after Angelou, then a high school student, had stayed out late with friends
“She hit me. She had a handful of keys about 20 keys on a chain, and I came through the door, before I could say anything she hit me with her fist. My stepfather came down from upstairs to see what was happening — she was still cursing like a drunk seaman. And then my brother came down and said, ‘We’re leaving here.’ And then my mother asked, ‘Where the hmmmmm do you think you’re going?’ He said, ‘We’re leaving this house. No one beats up my baby sister.’ And she said, ‘Please come in the kitchen. Let me speak to you. Please come. Please come.’
“She took a cloth off the rack and put it down on the floor, then she knelt on the cloth and she prayed to God to forgive her. And then she prayed to me. And she cried so piteously, she said, ‘I, I, I just had come down the steps had gone to your room and you weren’t in, and it’s 2:30 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and I thought of what that man did to you in St. Louis, when you were a little girl, 7 years old, and I thought maybe someone was taking advantage of you, and I was about crazy. And then I came down the steps and just then you pushed open the door, with a big smile on your face,’ and she said, ‘I hit you before I thought of it. Please forgive me.’ I forgave her immediately.”
On her time as a street car conductor, and how her mother would drive her to work and then keep watch as she did her job
“I was the first black person to be on the streetcars of San Francisco, a conductorette. And my mother had asked me, ‘What would you like to do this semester? You’re ahead of your class, what would you like to do? You have to work.’ So I said, ‘I’d like to be a streetcar conductor.’ She said, ‘All right, go get the job.’
“[My mother] drove me [to work] as long as I kept the job, which was a few months. And she’d drive right behind the streetcar until daylight. And at daylight, she’d honk her horn and blow me a kiss. [Angelou’s mother carried a gun in that car, to protect Angelou.]
“I told her, ‘That’s what you were — you were my great protection.’ She said, ‘I was more than that. You were mine, too.’ “
On her mother’s energy and her own dancing career
“I can’t describe her except that she gave off an energy. She was short — I mean she was 5 foot 5 inches, I’m 6 foot. She used to move a lot, like shaking, and I’d say, ‘Why do you move like that?’ She’d say, ‘My motor is running. ‘
“I don’t move that way, but I was a dancer for many years. I was a premier dancer for Porgy and Bess, the opera. And I taught dance some, in different places.
“I did work in a strip club, but I didn’t strip — I danced. And I became very popular. And the band — the band was so used to playing for the strippers … they just didn’t even look anymore, they were so bored and blase. But then I came and I said, ‘Do “Caravan,” ‘ and I’d hit the floor and dance my skin off, almost. And I moved from a strip joint to a cabaret.”
On when she started writing, and a poem she remembers from those days
“I liked to write from the time I was about 12 or 13. I loved to read. And since I only spoke to my brother, I would write down my thoughts. And I think I wrote some of the worst poetry west of the Rockies …
A poet does not see the writing on the wall,
she sees the wall, that’s all,
but for tomorrow goes her clarion call,
for others do not see the wall.
“Yessss, that’s mine. My lord. [I wrote that] about 70 years ago … amazing.”
On what she does with her free time
“That’s a wonderful question, because it would depend on what kind of day it is. If it’s a good spring or summer day, I’d probably be in my garden, or I’d be maybe cooking something that catches my fancy. One thing that’s nice to cook are whipped cream puffs. They’re so easy, and yet people think they’re so difficult, and they’re so complimentary.”
On whether she thinks about the word “legacy”
“I’m not ready to do that yet. Unless the creator’s ready for me I’m not going anywhere. And instead of having 33 books or whatever they are, I might have 40.”