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."

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?