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."