Now that she has completed her seventh memoir, “Mom & Me & Mom,” Maya Angelou has, in a way, fashioned a collage of her life — in prose.
This volume is about her mother, Vivian Baxter, who, in earlier accounts, was a presence. Here, she is The Subject of Examination.
Petite-but-decisive Baxter’s marriage to Bailey Henderson broke apart when Angelou was 3 and her brother, Bailey, was 5. Not believing she was either prepared or suited for parenthood, Baxter dispatched her California-raised children to her mother-in-law in Stamps, Ark., where they remained for a decade — until Bailey was too cocksure to continue living in the segregated South.
“When my brilliant brother Bailey was 14 he had reached a dangerous age for a black boy in the segregated South. It was a time when … a white person walked down the one paved block in town, any Negro on the street had to step aside and walk in the gutter.
“Bailey would obey the unspoken order but sometimes he would sweep his arm theatrically and loudly say, ‘Yes, sir, you are the boss, boss.’
“Some neighbors saw how Bailey acted … and reported to Grandmother. She called us both over and said to Bailey …‘[Y]ou been downtown showing out? Don’t you know these white folks will kill you for poking fun of them?’”
The siblings were returned to their mother in San Francisco, but the transition was not easy. In Arkansas they had been poor and rural children, but San Francisco was to prove almost glamorous.
Baxter had remarried — this time to a man they were instructed to address as “Daddy Clidell.” The house was staffed with servants and income was plentiful from the couple’s variegated holdings in pool halls, casinos, and gambling establishments. Baxter was also a nurse, a ship fitter, a barber, and a not-to-be-intimidated woman who carried a .38 — with gaggles of allies on either side of the law.
In time, she proved to be a good, conscientious mother who compensated for her previous negligence and indulgence. When Angelou decided to apply for and got a conductorette job on the San Francisco streetcar lines, Vivian encouraged her. Later, when Maya found herself pregnant out-of-wedlock at the age of 17, again, Baxter pushed her through it:
“The baby had not been planned and I would have to rethink plans about education, but to Vivian Baxter that was life being life. Having a baby while I was unmarried had not been wrong. It was simply slightly inconvenient.”
Time moves rapidly in “Mom & Me & Mom,” but if one is not familiar with the move-along style of Angelou’s oeuvre, her chronology can lack context. Occasionally, it’s hard to know when certain events occur, and some people, such as her father, Bailey Johnson, Sr., “Daddy Clidell,” and Grandmother Henderson, just disappear.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the peripatetic Angelou raised her son, Guy; married and divorced; worked at a record store and insurance company; and became a dancer of note at San Francisco’s Bonne Nuit Dance Cluband New York’s The Purple Onion. She also started to write poetry and joined the Harlem Writer’s Guild.
As the years passed, Baxter became a more incorporated component of Angelou’s dynamic life, but she is not observed here through an unscarred lens. According to the author, the after-effects of Baxter’s abandonment caused Bailey to experience intermittent drug problems. And led Maya Angelou, it appears, to pick bad men. One might even wonder if Angelou’s sometimes nightmarish encounters with them were unconscious “rescue missions” to see if Vivian would “save” her — even after one brute threatened Angelou at knife point, and another turned into a jealous tyrant.
If Angelou’s deep-down doubt was about her mother loving her, then she needn’t have fretted. Baxter transformed herself into a nearly perfect, always available parent.
David Bruce Smith is the author of 11 books and founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, which is restoring enthusiasm about American history for kids — and adults — through videos, podcasts, and interactive activities.