When Maya Angelou was just three years old, she was sent, along with her older brother, to live with her grandparents in the town of Stamp, Arkansas. This decision was taken following her parents’ separation, a consequence of which was that ‘neither wanted the responsibility of taking care of two toddlers’.
The blurb of her newest book, Mom & Me & Mom, in which Angelou details the relationship which this decision caused her to have with her mother, states that within its pages, she ‘reveals the triumphs, struggles and profound moments that shifted the balance of love and respect’ between the two. This volume of autobiography is supposed to stand apart from the six other volumes which she has published over the years, beginning with her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou begins by detailing the past of her mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson, who became the first black officer in the Merchant Marines. Rather than appear bitter about her mother giving she and her brother up so easily, Angelou writes the following in her prologue: ‘I knew that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore’. She then goes on to say that ‘this book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths’.
Mom & Me & Mom has been split into two sections – ‘Mom & Me’ and ‘Me & Mom’. Throughout, Angelou uses the social and political history of the period and sets out the ways in which it affected her family. She says of her mother, for example, ‘The first decade of the twentieth century was not a great time to be born black and poor and female in St. Louis, Missouri, but Vivian Baxter was born black and poor to black and poor parents’. Vivian, who was born into a family who revelled in violence, met Maya’s father, the ‘handsome soldier’ Bailey Johnson, in 1924: ‘They fell in love while Vivian’s brothers walked around him threateningly’.
Angelou details the sad life which she had almost from the very beginning. After the man who raped her during her childhood died, she writes that she ‘decided that my voice was so powerful that it could kill people, but it could not harm my brother because we loved each other so much’. Despite the awful circumstances which Angelou bravely describes, it feels as though the book should be far more emotional than it is. Parts of the book’s structure feel almost entirely lifeless, and nothing feels quite developed enough. Sadly, some of the details within it do tend to become a little confusing, and the dialogue feels rather flat throughout. It is a good companion to her other volumes of autobiography, but Mom & Me & Mom does not seem to stand apart from her previous books in any way.