Poet, author and activist Maya Angelou is setting her sights on the bestseller lists again. The 84-year-old released her seventh autobiographical memoir, Mom & Me & Mom, today. We’ve been privy to the acclaimed writer’s tumultuous life through I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together In My Name, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes and several other masterpieces. But this is the first book delving into her relationship with her biological mother.
Readers were first introduced to Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Baxter sent the future Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and her son to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou’s first memoir details life from that abandonment onward, but Mom & Me & Mom interrogates how the absence of her mother impacted her as both a child and a woman.
Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson, explained the importance of her mother’s love in an interview with NPR. “I’m Maya Angelou — whatever that means to whomever it means — because my mother loved me, and my grandmother loved me, and my brother loved me,” she said. “And they all told me I could do whatever I wanted to do.”
The Wake Forest University professor also details her relationship with her mother – who she describes as larger-than-life – in the NPR interview. Some of the highlights include:
On her reunion with her birth mother, and why she called her ‘Lady’
“Well, she didn’t look like a mother to me. She didn’t remind me of my grandmother, who we called Mama. She wore lipstick. And she had record players and she played music, loudly and danced, in the middle of the dining room floor. She said after a few weeks, ‘You’re going to have to address me,’ and she asked, ‘What would you like to call me?’ I said, ‘I’d like to call you Lady, because you’re very beautiful and you sound like a lady.’ She said, ‘All right, I’ll be Lady, so everyone must address me as Lady from now on.’ So all sorts of people know her only as Lady.
“But after a few years she won me. She won me over because she was kind. And then she was also funny. So I liked all that. And she just won me over. And then I heard myself calling her Mother, and before I knew it I was calling her Mom.”
On her mother’s energy and her own dancing career
“I can’t describe her except that she gave off an energy. She was short — I mean she was 5 foot 5 inches, I’m 6 foot. She used to move a lot, like shaking, and I’d say, ‘Why do you move like that?’ She’d say, ‘My motor is running. ‘
“I don’t move that way, but I was a dancer for many years. I was a premier dancer for Porgy and Bess, the opera. And I taught dance some, in different places.
“I did work in a strip club, but I didn’t strip — I danced. And I became very popular. And the band — the band was so used to playing for the strippers … they just didn’t even look anymore, they were so bored and blase. But then I came and I said, ‘Do “Caravan,” ‘ and I’d hit the floor and dance my skin off, almost. And I moved from a strip joint to a cabaret.”
Will you be reading Mom & Me & Mom?