As I re-read Dr. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings recently, I remembered the fourteen-year-old eighth-grader I was who could relate to Dr. Angelou’s childhood dream of a magic, silk dress that a girl could wear to finally make people see and know her true beauty, a dress that would make everyone sorry they ever called her anything but beautiful.
I would learn, along with Dr. Angelou, there wasn’t any such dress — but there was the magic of a mother’s love that could make any enemy retreat.
Dr. Angelou’s latest book, Mom & Me & Mom, (which provides a striking new insight when read alongside, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) is a tribute to the unconditional love of her mother, Lady Vivian Baxter, and the unconditional love Dr. Angelou learned to have for her mom, much later on in life.
At 85 years old, Dr. Angelou confessed to me that she’d tried to write this book years ago but never could. Though she and Lady Baxter had shared a close relationship since Dr. Angelou had returned to live with her mother as a teenager until the time of Lady Baxter’s passing in 1991, Dr. Angelou still struggled with truly forgiving the mother who abandoned her at three years old on her grandmother’s steps in Stamps, Arkansas.
But a year and a half ago, she finally knew: “It was time.”
“I wasn’t treated as a pretty girl”
She told me, “For every harm, every injury, love is the healing agent and I learned that at long last.” As she carefully inspected and warmly reflected on her time with her mother, she says, “I saw how much my mother’s love liberated me and helped me become who I am.”
And with that forgiveness, she was finally free to write honestly and lovingly about who her mother was.
Vivian Baxter was the first person to ever tell a young Maya that she was pretty.
“I wasn’t treated as a pretty girl. I had been raped [by my mother’s boyfriend at 7 years old] and that made me feel unattractive and dirty. I felt that people could just look at me and tell that I was messed up goods. My grandmother loved me and my brother [Bailey Johnson] loved me in those years and so they kept me from committing suicide. [But my mother] kissed me and called me darling, it was really quite heavy.”
“I stopped being this pariah”
Though it meant the world to her to be reunited with a beautiful mother who also thought she was pretty, Dr. Angelou still didn’t believe that about herself. “I knew she wasn’t a liar and I knew she was very intelligent. (She always said she was ‘too mean to lie.’) But I was hers and so it didn’t mean that I was pretty to other people.”
But as it turned out, being “hers,” belonging to Vivian Baxter, was enough to save Dr. Angelou’s life on many occasions. When Dr. Angelou had been kidnapped, beaten and held hostage for three days by her boyfriend at the time, it was Vivian Baxter who hunted that man down knowing only his nickname, “Two Fingers Mark,” rescued her baby, gave Dr. Angelou a gun and served old Two Fingers up to her on a platter.
When Dr. Angelou was in Stockholm, Sweden watching her first screenplay get made into a movie, it was Vivian Baxter whom she called for emotional support when the cast and crew ostracized her on set. Lady Baxter was on the next plane smoking from California to Sweden and within a week of her being there, the cast and crew had completely changed the way they behaved around Dr. Angleou.
“I stopped being this pariah and they began to treat me differently. And it wasn’t anything [my mother] did – she was. [That’s] the value of a mother, the value of that kind of love.” With only her presence, Vivian Baxter had stamped validation all over her child; everybody could feel it and governed themselves accordingly.
It was the same validation she had given when Dr. Angelou had become pregnant out of wedlock as a teenager with her only son, Guy Bailey Johnson. Instead of shaming her, Vivian Baxter wrapped her arms around Dr. Angelou and vowed to help her raise her son. When Dr. Angelou needed an outfit to audition for a job at a strip club, Vivian Baxter helped her crowd sequins, beads and feathers onto a G-string and a brassiere.
In fact, there was only one road that she would not walk alongside Dr. Angelou on.
Lady Baxter stopped speaking to her daughter when Dr. Angelou decided to marry a poor white man named Tosh in 1951. “She thought I wasn’t using my intelligence,” Dr. Angelou recalled. “She said, ‘If you have to marry a white man, marry a rich one!” She let out a hearty laugh thinking back on it though at the time, it broke Dr. Angelou’s heart. “[My mother] thought it was just as easy to love a rich white man as it was to love a poor one. But no rich ones came around and Tosh was very kind and [much later] when she came back around and saw the way he treated me and my son, she accepted him.”
“Stand on your own two feet”
Though she was only married to Tosh for three years, Dr. Angelou said that she has no regrets about marrying him and losing time with her mother as a result. “I was loved and I was very grateful to him and grateful for the courage that I had to accept when he proposed. He was a good father to Guy and a great husband to me. It just didn’t last very long. But I am grateful for it.
“I knew [my mother] loved me and she was going to come [around] and, if necessary, break up my marriage if she didn’t think I was being treated right.”
Though in her young adult years Dr. Angelou knew Vivian Baxter to be a fierce defender, she told me that her mother’s absence during her childhood and the atrocities she survived helped to make her into an independent spirit.
“My mother had a saying: ‘Stand on your own two feet. You put your own two hands on the wheel, put your own shoulders to the plow.’ You look like a ninny asking everybody else to protect you when you’re not willing to protect yourself.”
Dr. Angelou has learned that the most important way she can do this is to forgive herself. “I’ve done my best. Sometimes I’ve blown it, but I’m quick to forgive myself and I hope that the next time I’ll do better,” she told me before launching into her mentee Oprah Winfrey’s favorite Angelouism: “If you’d have known better, you’d have done better. Rush to forgive yourself,” she advised, “so that you can learn something. I learn and I continue to learn as long as I’m alive or I have no reason to be alive.”
It was in accepting these flaws about herself that she was finally able to accept the flaws in her mother. She told me that if her mother had not abandoned her as a child, “Oh, I would’ve been ruined. She didn’t know what to do with small children. Some people are great parents of small children…but when children reach 13 or 14 the parents that can’t stand them. And then there are parents who are great parents of young adults. My mother was in that last group.”
A lifetime of questions
Twenty minutes in, I got the polite and familiar request to wrap the interview up. “I’m sorry, I have a lifetime of questions!” I told Dr. Angelou as I scrolled through the remaining ones–at least ten. In her book, she’d said that dancing had made her feel alive and as if her body had purpose. Now wheelchair bound, I longed to know what made her feel alive and purposeful today. But I didn’t ask. I had already spoken to her fifteen minutes longer than Oprah had the first time Dr. Angelou agreed to be interviewed by her. I’d had more than enough time.
So, instead, I quickly told Dr. Angelou about my own mother and how she’d made my sister and I memorize her life-changing poem “Phenomenal Woman” when we were younger and that doing so it created in me a longing for a brand-new kind of beauty – one that I’d finally felt was within my reach.
“Well kiss your mother for me,” she said.
Brooke Obie is a contributing editor for EBONY.com and author of the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.