Virago £12.99

Review: Mom & Me & Mom, By Maya Angelou

The latest typically clear-sighted instalment of Maya Angelou's memoirs includes beatings, guns and a celebration of the maternal bond

There is violence in Maya Angelou's new book. There is also sorrow and bitterness and pain. But mainly there is love. Mom & Me & Mom is about a bond between mother and daughter that is slow to come, ferociously hard-won, very nearly lost, but, in the end, indestructible.

There are passages here that will be familiar to those who have read the author's earlier autobiographies. Angelou – octogenarian poet, playwright, academic and activist – has been writing about her life for more than 40 years and is still best known for I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, about her upbringing in racially segregated Arkansas and Missouri. In it she recalled how, at the age of eight, she was raped by her mother's boyfriend. He was later kicked to death, after which Angelou didn't speak for five years. She felt that by naming him she had killed him.

Mom & Me & Mom revisits this and several other traumatic episodes, some in more detail than others. There's the summer in her mid-teens that she spent with her father during which her stepmother cut her with sewing scissors. Angelou packed her bags and slept in a junkyard with homeless people before eventually finding her way home. There's also the long and ferocious beating with fists and a wooden slat dispensed by a jealous boyfriend, causing her teeth to spear her lips and multiple ribs to break.

As in her previous books, these tales are told with clear-sightedness and an absence of self-pity, and they are no less grim for their familiarity. Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.

Principally, though, Mom & Me & Mom is a tapestry of memories of Angelou's mother, Vivian Baxter, who shipped her and her brother, Bailey, off to live with their grandmother when they were three and five respectively, so that she could sort out her marital troubles. Vivian and her husband then divorced, but neither asked for their children back.

When the children were eventually sent back to their mother in San Francisco, a decade later, it was for their safety, following a sharp rise in lynchings of black teenage boys in Arkansas. Clapping eyes on Baxter for the first time, Angelou saw "a pretty little woman with red lips and high heels" and decided that they couldn't be related. "That woman who looked like a movie star deserved a better-looking daughter than me." Angry at their separation, Angelou used language to get even. Refusing to call Vivian "Mother", she first addressed her as "Ma'am" and later settled on "Lady".

Luckily, Vivian, a player on the California gambling scene and the first black officer in the merchant marines, was a patient woman. She was also kind, fearless and intensely loyal. On discovering that her daughter was eight months pregnant at 17, her first reaction was to run her a bath.

While Angelou was recovering at Vivian's house after her boyfriend's assault, her mother gave her a gun and the name of a hotel where she had heard her attacker was drinking. Angelou took the gun and went to the hotel, though when she saw him her anger evaporated and she let him live. "I'd have shot him like a dog in the street," remarked Vivian when her daughter came home. "You're a better woman than I am."

Their relationship, complex and unsettled during Angelou's teens, had by now resolved into a trust and mutual respect that the pair maintained until Vivian's death in the early 1990s. Perhaps what is most interesting in Mom & Me & Mom is Angelou's casual overturning of the idea of the mother who abandons her children as monstrous and inhumane. Vivian Baxter emerges from the book unapologetic, charismatic, independent and resilient; all traits that have seemingly been passed on to her daughter.

It was under Vivian's guidance that Angelou landed her first job as the first African-American female streetcar conductor. As she then moved from career to career and husband to husband, her mother remained her closest advisor. From Vivian, she learned about steeliness and survival and how, as a black woman, she would require immense stamina and determination to achieve the things that her white counterparts could take for granted. Given how things turned out, this clearly served her well.

Filling in what are possibly the final blanks in Angelou's eventful life, Mom & Me & Mom is a profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond. Despite the many traumas recorded here, it's significant that one of the most memorable passages is a simple expression of love. "Baby I've been thinking and now I am sure," Vivian says to her daughter as they are crossing the street one day. "You are the greatest woman I've ever met."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas