“My mother was irresistible,” Maya Angelou says, but “irresistible” is also a word that many readers have applied to Angelou herself. She is a one-woman autobiography industry, as well as a poet, playwright and performer, but mostly she is a Large Public Presence. Her best-known work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a harrowing account of her muteness after she was raped as a child, is still widely taught. Several generations of Americans warmly remember “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem she recited, in her typically stylized fashion, for Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration.
Neither that poem nor her astounding seven autobiographies are aimed at a highbrow literary audience, though Angelou is smart and gifted enough to write for any audience she pleases. Clearly, she chooses to write for readers as open, playful and straightforward as herself. Though she is the ostensible subject of all those autobiographies (if she’d started publishing them today, we’d probably call them “memoirs” because of their limited focus), her subject is also growing up black in Jim Crow America. She manages to fully reveal that national sore without picking at it, a neat trick that (like her early stint as an exotic dancer) requires considerable restraint and her own steely goodwill.
Angelou’s mother had an outsize personality, to say the least. Vivian Baxter was miserable in her marriage and so unsuited to caring for Maya and her brother, Bailey, that she sent them to live with her mother-in-law when they were small. Their resentment was profound: Maya “poked out the eyes of each doll” her mother sent as a gift, and Bailey destroyed his trains and trucks with big rocks. When their mother finally summoned them from Arkansas to San Francisco 10 years later, Maya was 13 and still resentful. The scenes depicting her halting steps toward acceptance are among the best in this new book, intense with remembered contempt for her brother’s seemingly easy reentry into his mother’s orbit: She calls Bailey and Vivian “the new lovers.” (Later, his struggles with drugs will make it clear that nothing’s been easy.)
By the time her children returned, Vivian had remarried a man they called Daddy Clidell and was living comfortably, with house servants. She ran a boardinghouse and owned pool halls and gambling clubs, but we learn elsewhere in this account that she was also, at various times, a nurse, a shipfitter and a barber. She was familiar with — and unintimidated by — jail cells. She packed a .38, which she didn’t hesitate to wave around, but she also distracted Maya through labor and childbirth with dirty jokes. In later life, Vivian came running (once as far as Stockholm) when Maya called. After her death, the city of Stockton, Calif., named a park for her in recognition of her civic work.
Vivian Baxter is, in short, also a Large Dramatic Presence in this book, and Angelou matches that spirit, recounting anecdotes for their spice, sometimes with scant regard for chronological order. Time races through this narrative, and important presences disappear (whatever happened to Daddy Clidell?). After early stints as a clerk, a cook and a dancer, Maya becomes a writer in one brisk paragraph, “thanks to the encouragement and guidance of the members of the Harlem Writers Guild.”
No matter. Angelou is not simply telling the story of how she came to love the woman who had sent her away. She is also telling the story of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother and briefly “became convinced it would be difficult if not impossible to raise a happy black boy in a racist society.” She credits her ultimate success at proudly raising her son to her mother. It was also her mother who insisted that Angelou persevere in securing a job as a “conductorette” on a street car, a job that no black woman had ever been hired to do. When the newspapers reported that she was the first “American Negro to work on the railway,” a black railway man who had been passing for white tried to correct the story. He was fired for lying on his job application. That anecdote is dropped lightly into the storytelling, and elsewhere major dramatic incidents — Maya was beaten unconscious and held captive by a jealous lover, for example — are delivered without much amplification or further reference.
Angelou clearly expects her readers to move along, just as her mother urged her to move past whatever was unbearable. The results of this upbringing are evident in the writing: “Mom & Me & Mom” is delivered with Angelou’s trademark good humor and fierce optimism. If any resentments linger between these lines, if lives are partially revealed without all the bitter details exposed, well, that is part of Angelou’s forgiving design. As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.
Sayers, chair of the English Department at the University of Notre Dame, is author of six novels, including “The Powers,” just released.
Michael Dirda is on vacation. He will be back next week.
MOM & ME & MOM
Random House. 201 pp. $22