Homage to motherhood

MOM & ME & MOM. By Maya Angelou. Random House. 224 pages. $22.

Maya Angelou’s latest installment of her autobiographical opus pays tribute to her mother, Vivian Baxter. It is an intimate look at the complex yet oft-overlooked relationship between black women and their mothers.

Black feminist writers, including Alice Walker and bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), have recalled painful memories of growing up feeling unloved by parents who nevertheless did the best they could. Rebecca Walker, a third-wave feminist and daughter of Alice Walker, has written about her troubled relationship with her mother due to her mother’s second-wave feminism. And more recently, the world has become intrigued by first lady Michelle Obama’s relationship with her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and her two daughters, Sasha and Malia.

“Mom & Me & Mom” is a timely addition to the growing canon of work by black women about black motherhood and mother-daughter relationships. Here, in true Maya Angelou fashion, “Mom & Me & Mom,” employs autobiographical sketches to pay homage to her mother and provides an unusual perspective on black motherhood in the 20th century.

Nurse, entrepreneur and merchant sailor, Vivian Baxter was not your average woman, let alone mother. Her beauty, charm and courage intimidated and inspired a young Maya and left an indelible influence on Maya’s development, worldview and belief in her right to have a seat at life’s table.

Though Angelou’s reflections are laced with memories of pain and heartache, they are tempered by stories of joy, personal triumph and a willingness to focus on the kind of support she did have growing up versus bitterness about what she perceived she did not. In her customary lyrical style, Angelou reflects on the emotional, geographical, and spiritual roads she has traversed to become the 85-year-old mother, grandmother, poet and literary sage she is.

As the title suggests, the narrative is an exegesis on her complicated relationship with her larger-than-life mother, whom she called “Lady” for most of her childhood. Angelou writes candidly about her feelings of abandonment and disconnection from her mother, who sent her and her beloved older brother, Bailey, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Ark., when she was just 3.

The memory of being separated from one’s parents at an early age is a pervasive one in early African-American history. Historical narratives tell us that countless enslaved black children were raised by grandparents or other elders when their mothers and fathers were sold off and sent to other plantations. During the Great Migration, thousands of African-Americans left their children in the care of grandparents and extended kin as they ventured north in search of opportunities.

In Angelou’s case, her parents — Vivian and Bailey — moved out west to California to make a life for their children. She characterizes the beauty and anguish of their union as “matches and gasoline,” which ultimately led to their separation and the children being sent down south to the safety of Annie ’s home.

Angelou weaves vivid childhood memories of her mother with an appreciation of black womanhood and motherhood one gains only from personal experience, thoughtful healing and blessed wisdom. She recalls that neither her mother nor grandmother was demonstrative, yet somehow she knew she was loved. Still, like all children, Angelou longed for something more, something unknown, something absent from their relationship: an expressive, touchy-feely love one reads about in novels or sees on television, one that many people, regardless of race, neglect to administer to their children and partners in the face of hard work, busy schedules and survival in general.

Thus, her experience is not a unique one. Many African-Americans Angelou’s age tell similar stories of harsh admonishments doled out by parents and grandparents, and tough-love rearing that ensured their safety and survival. Yet somehow, like Angelou, they knew they were loved.

In “Mom & Me & Mom,” Angelou pays homage to Vivian’s stern, powerful, fearless and invaluable mother wit and love that healed her from childhood feelings of abandonment and low self-worth. It was Angelou’s understanding and appreciation of Vivian’s love that ultimately healed their relationship.

Among many of the funny and moving anecdotes included in her memoir, one that exemplifies the beauty and power of Vivian Baxter’s unconventional mothering is her insistence that a young Maya go after a job she really wanted — one that had been held exclusively by white girls her age. Girded with her mother’s confidence that she could get the job, and that she deserved the job, she landed it.

But it was during Maya’s transition from girl to mother that Vivian equipped her daughter with the emotional ammunition needed to be whole in the world, that something she always had longed for: a mother’s love. Angelou recounted the following about her embarkation as a teenage single mother:

“On the day we moved from her house, Mother liberated me by letting me know she was on my side. I realized that I had grown close to her and that she had liberated me. She liberated me from a society that would have had me think of myself as the lower of the low. She liberated me to life. And from that time to this, I have taken life by the lapels and I have said, ‘I’m with you kid.’ ”

Looking back over her life, Angelou admits that while her mother’s love didn’t always look and feel the way she thought it should, it always had been there nonetheless. We all should be so lucky.

Reviewer Patricia Williams Lessane is director of the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.