Mom & Me & Mom

By Maya Angelou

Random House. 201 pp. $22

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Reviewed by Annette John-Hall


Maya Angelou has created a lucrative little cottage industry by writing about herself.

So far, the author, poet, cultural icon, and OSM (Oprah's surrogate mom) has written seven serial autobiographies, some to critical acclaim (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). As much as critics have honored Angelou as the first African American woman to share her life story and praised her unfettered prose, they've also accused her of coloring in some parts of her life. "Autobiographical fiction," they've called it.

Embellished or not, we've had a grand old time globe-trotting with Angelou over six volumes of her sweepingly remarkable life. But in her seventh, Mom & Me & Mom, the 85-year-old author makes herself a minor character and chooses instead to make literary peace with a woman she's often penned as an antagonist - her mother, Vivian Baxter.

In reality, Angelou and Baxter cultivated a loving relationship years ago. But readers don't know that. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou depicted Baxter mostly as an absentee mother who banished Maya and her older brother, Bailey, not once, but twice to Stamps, Ark., to live with their maternal grandmother. In fact, one of the most traumatic incidents of Angelou's life came on her mother's watch, when 7-year-old Maya was raped by one of Vivian's male friends. The incident rendered Angelou virtually mute for six years, and indirectly informed a mistrustful mother-daughter relationship.

Mom & Me & Mom picks up when Angelou, 13, escorted via train by her grandmother, reunites with Vivian in San Francisco, Calif.

Of Baxter, Angelou writes: "She kissed me on my lips and started to cry. 'That's the first time I have seen you smile. It is a beautiful smile. Mother's beautiful daughter can smile.' I was not used to being called beautiful . . . . I was beginning to appreciate her."

Who wouldn't appreciate Baxter? She was a woman generations ahead of her time - a nurse, real estate agent, barber, seaman (-woman?), gambling-house operator. A park in Stockton, Calif., is named after her because of her charitable works. But Vivian Baxter also had to teach Angelou the meaning of the term "own recognizance" because she was released on it so many times.

Angelou called her mother "Lady" because through Maya's, tall, dark-skinned filter, Vivian - petite, light-skinned and perfume-splashed - exuded beauty. Though sometimes, Lady could act like anything but. She was a big-city woman with big-city ways and a big-city, pistol-packing code of survival that was especially brazen for someone born poor, black, and female during the first decade of the 20th century.

Angelou recalls when, as a young woman, mother and daughter met at a newly integrated hotel in Fresno, Calif. After a cautious trek to the safety of their rooms - her mother instructing the white help all along the way - Vivian opened her bag to reveal to Maya a .38-caliber revolver. "If they were not ready for integration," she explained, "I was ready to show it to them."

As a writer, Angelou can frustrate. She sacrifices major narrative elements - times, people, places - to get to the bigger message she wants to convey. Not to mention that this memoir would have been the perfect place for Angelou to explore issues of generational abandonment, because there were certainly times when the author left her own son to pursue her career for extended periods.

But clearly Mom & Me & Mom is devoted to a mother's unconditional love. Angelou's feelings for her mother ascended from disdain to gradual acceptance to wholesale reliance after Maya gave birth to a son at age 17. Without Vivian's nonjudgmental support, Maya could have been just another single-mom stripper with low self-esteem. Instead, Maya blossomed into a multitalented, globally renowned artist.

"My mother," Angelou writes, "had my back, supported me. This is the role of a mother . . . . Not just because she feeds and also loves and cuddles and even mollycoddles a child, but because in an interesting and maybe an eerie and unworldly way, she stands in the gap."

In the end, as Vivian Baxter was dying from lung cancer, Angelou turned the tables and took her in. "You were a terrible mother of small children," she told her mom, "but there has never been any greater than you as a mother of a young adult."

As Angelou's spare storytelling proves, there is power in the reciprocity of mother-daughter love.

Annette John-Hall is a former Inquirer columnist.