At the age of 84, Maya Angelou doesn’t have to write anymore. She has global fame as a poet, author and performer, as well as a professorship in American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has won three Grammys and a Presidential Medal of Arts, published two cookbooks, directed movies and appeared on “Sesame Street.”
She wrote her latest memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, not because she has to, but because she feels an obligation to share what she knows.
“Every adult owes to every young person the truth,” Angelou says in an interview with BookPage from her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Not the facts—you can get the facts from various sources. The truth is how human beings feel—how a particular action makes a human being sad or happy—so that when young people encounter that particular feeling, they can say, oh, I know this feeling because someone else has been here before.”
In straightforward style, Mom & Me & Mom dives deeply into Angelou’s complicated relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, who owned gambling businesses and boarding houses in California and Nome, Alaska. Anyone who has read Angelou’s previous memoirs, including the searing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, knows that Angelou and her brother, Bailey, were sent as very young children to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
Those readers might also have been left with the impression that Vivian Baxter Johnson was not mother material. In her new book, Angelou paints a more complete picture of the woman she called “Lady,” fleshing out in her wholly singular voice the story of what happened when their grandmother decided in the early 1940s that it was time they rejoined their mother in California. The move was mainly for her 14-year-old brother’s sake. It was, Angelou wrote, “a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South.”
Angelou was a gangly teenager when she was sent to California to live with her pretty, petite mother.
They traveled by train to San Francisco, settling in with Lady and her husband, “a wondrous, very pleasant-looking man” named Clidell Jackson. Angelou was a gangly teenager, six feet tall with a deep voice, and at first she felt ill at ease around her pretty, petite mother, who favored “red lips and high heels.”
Over time, their relationship warmed, and despite her illicit business interests and occasional arrests, Lady had strong opinions about maintaining the family’s reputation. “You will learn that we do not lie, and we do not cheat, and we do laugh a lot,” she tells Maya and Bailey shortly after their arrival.
While still in high school, Angelou decided she wanted a job as a conductorette on a San Francisco streetcar. With headstrong determination, she planted herself in the company office for two weeks until a supervisor finally accepted her application. When she was hired, the newspapers hailed her as “the first American Negro to work on the railway.” Her mother drove her to the streetcar barn each day to start her 4 a.m. shift, and drove behind the streetcar until daylight, a pistol on the car seat next to her.
When Angelou became pregnant while still in high school, she was terrified to tell her mother. But Lady was accepting of her daughter’s pregnancy, telling her, “We—you and I—and this family are going to have a wonderful baby. That’s all there is to that.”
Angelou gave birth right after graduating and worked two jobs to support herself and her young son, Guy. Trying hard to forge her own path, she moved into a boarding house, and would not accept money or even a ride from her mother, but did let Lady take Guy twice a week. Angelou raised him with humor and a firm desire that he be a strong, self-reliant man who was always true to himself.
“We got on so wonderfully well. I’m grateful for that,” Angelou says. “I’ve always loved him but I was never in love with him. When he was 8 or 9, I told him there was a place inside him which had to remain inviolate. No mother, no father, no boyfriend, no girlfriend could go there. It was the place he would go when he met his maker.”
Angelou longed to do more than work as a fry cook and a clerk in a record shop—just as her mother knew she would, long before Angelou knew it herself. In the book, Angelou recalls the time her mother stopped her while they walked toward the streetcar. “Baby,” her mother told her, “I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.”
“I got onto the streetcar,” Angelou says. “I can even remember the time of day—the sun shone onto the seats. I thought, suppose she’s right. Because she was very intelligent and always said she was too mean to lie.”
Angelou began dancing and singing, eventually traveling to Europe as part of an African-American production of Porgy and Bess. Guilt-ridden at leaving Guy behind for several months, Angelou suffered a breakdown and sought the advice of her vocal coach, who sat her down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and told her to write her blessings. It was in that moment that she found her written voice.
At 84, Angelou shows few signs of slowing down, although her famously powerful voice trembles a bit.
She keeps up with pop culture. “I did watch the Grammys,” she says. “I liked it all. I must admit I fell asleep.”
She cooks. “Whatever I cook is the best I know how to cook,” she says. “I’m not a chef but I’m a very serious cook. I respect the ingredients and I respect the people who eat them. My mother used to say a cook’s greatest tools are hands and nose and ears.”
She still hosts an annual Black History Month radio show aired around the nation. This year, she featured interviews with Kofi Annan, Oprah Winfrey and Alicia Keys, among others.
“There are so many reasons young black men in particular—and young black women—don’t value themselves. One of the reasons is they don’t know enough about who they are and whose they are,” she says. “I try to pack the hour [of radio] I have. This year I’m using more contemporary people. I want to continue to talk about the achievements, wherever they came from.”
And she’s a loving grandmother. She speaks proudly of her grandson’s recent graduation from George Washington University with a master’s degree in international finance, and her desire to “be to my grandson what my grandmother was to me. And I am! He thinks I’m the bee’s knees.”
As for what her own mother—her biggest champion—would think of Mom & Me & Mom, Angelou is certain. “I think she’d love it,” she says. “It tells some of her truth. She deserved to have a real fine daughter.”