Maya Angelou starts her conversation book by mentioning something people often ask, how it is that she became the women she is, a question she says she has been tempted to respond to using lines quoted from Topsy, the young black girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who said, “I dunno, I just growed.”
Instead, Angelou has written this thought-provoking tribute, sharing a slew of matriarchal experiences among the many others already shared in her remarkable series of autobiographies, to highlight a little of how she did become that brave, sensitive, adventurous and caring women she is, in part due to the grandmother she loved and the mother she came to adore.
It is a story written with utmost compassion and forgiveness, for this is a woman whose mother admitted when she and her husband separated that she could not mother young children, so sent them to live with their grandmother for ten years. Angelou closes the prologue reminding us that love heals and throughout the book will prove that kindness is the greatest gift we can ever give and foster in others.
Love heals. Heals and liberates. I use the word love, not meaning sentimentality, but a condition so strong that it may be that which holds the stars in their heavenly positions and that which causes the blood to flow orderly in our veins.
Vivian Baxter, Maya Angelou’s mother, was the eldest of a large family of mostly boys, for whom threats, intimidation and violence were a part of their way of their life and this petite force was often at the forefront of their skirmishes. Their father encouraged tough boy talk and tasked his daughter with ensuring the boys didn’t soften. Little wonder that after falling in love, marrying and realising that it was a mistake, they were also unable to agree on who should raise their toddlers, they separated and sent the children to their father’s mother in Stamps, Arkansas. Maya was three and Bailey five-years-old.
Ten years later, when their grandmother felt that Bailey had grown too old for Arkansas, when he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South, it was arranged for them to return to their mother in California. Bailey was enthusiastic, Maya much less so. It would be difficult, but for all her flaws, their mother knew how to communicate with her children and didn’t push her mother status on them. Maya decided she would call her ‘Lady’ and her mother’s response to this is one of many small pleasures Angelou offers up in her book.
Maya has a baby very young, without the foundation of a loving relationship, however with the love and support of her mother, this event in no way prevents her from pursuing her life’s dreams and ambitions.
I thought about my mother and knew she was amazing. She never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family. The baby had not been planned and I would have to rethink plans about education, but to Vivian Baxter that was life being life.
Some years later deciding to marry Tosh tested the mother daughter relationship, Vivian didn’t try to stop her daughter from making what she thought was a mistake, but she chose to leave San Francisco, not wishing to witness the fallout. Like any young women living off the heady ambiance of newly married love, Maya wished to prove her mother wrong.
To begin with she continued doing all the things she loved, the things that made her Maya Angelou, seeing her friends, attending a dance class, going to church and speaking freely about God. However her activities slowly became issues between the young couple, so she stopped them in an attempt to maintain peace between herself and her husband.
At first the dimness is hardly noticeable but not alarming. Then with a rush, the light is vanquished by darkness.
This gem of a book, complete with gorgeous photos, is a wonderful addition to her already masterful collection of autobiographies and chronicles that one relationship that runs through our entire lives, that with our mother. It may not always be easy, but Angelou shares those moments that tested and ultimately strengthened the love and respect they had for each other. She accomplishes it with incredible honesty and selflessness, something that shines through in the brief interview I have linked here. What a wise and loving soul she is.
Interview – Learning to Love My Mother: Maya talks about her mother with a BBC interviewer.
“Exercise patience with yourself first, so you can forgive yourself for all the dumb things you do. Then exercise patience with your children.”
Note: The book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.