In her new memoir, Maya Angelou sets out to answer the question of how she got to be Maya Angelou — a question she is asked frequently. As the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the revolutionary story of how Angelou was raped as a girl and rendered temporarily mute in the aftermath, she might expect her audience to know what made her who she is today. But this memoir does not center on Angelou’s childhood trauma, but rather constructs a portrait of self via details of her relationship to the mother who abandoned her and with whom she reunited as a teenager.
In fewer than 200 pages of very simply written prose, the author shows the unexpected ways one tenacious woman made Maya Angelou Maya Angelou. Although the narrative reveals that Angelou suffered further abuse in her young life, the tone is mostly light, even sweet, filled with affection for her younger self. Readers can imagine this voice speaking intimately to teen girls whose lives today are not unlike what Angelou describes: academic and social woes, body and sexual anxiety, even teen pregnancy and early single-motherhood. Yet this book never takes a moment to preach as it presents Angelou’s life path scattered with enormous obstacles endured and conquered through knowledge of self and a singular brand of mother love. The book is also in no way a success story. We know Angelou overcomes her troubled past, but her future success is understated to the point of being implied by the author’s well-known name on the book.
There’s a lovely clarity to Angelou’s young adult point of view that helps us understand how she came to love a woman she first called “Lady” instead of mother. Quickly we see how her mother, a formidable woman who ran gambling houses, was also “difficult to resist,” possessed of a strange charm that made folks adore her as well as fear her.
Angelou describes Vivian “Lady B” Baxter as a “startling beauty,” a woman “too mean to lie” and a force to be reckoned with, a force that drove her daughter’s ambitions with locomotive steam. In fact, “Lady B” convinced her daughter to become the first African-American woman to work on the local railroad. She also used her determination on her own behalf, becoming a seaman just to force the union to accept an African-American woman.
What compels readers through this narrative is the unlikelihood of Angelou’s hard-won love for her extraordinary mother. A woman who ran with a rough crowd, Lady B freely admitted she was not meant to be a mother. Angelou portrays her as extraordinarily self-aware, liberated from what others might think, and independent beyond any feminist of her era. She was, in short, an interesting and contradictory character, the stuff of fiction but real and responsible in unexpected ways for the gift of her talented daughter.
Heid Erdrich is a poet in Minneapolis.