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.