April 4, 1928
Maya Angelou is one of the most resonant voices of the history of American literature. She has written bestselling autobiographies, books of poetry, and plays that have affected more people than has the work of almost any other black author I can name. In the process she has infused the art form of the autobiography with a densely poetic discourse reminiscent of the old Negro Spirituals. She is also a historian, an educator, and a lecturer who has thrilled audiences with her mesmerizing, resonant, lyrical speaking voice. I have sat in those audiences, spellbound, and I know the power of her voice. So I was delighted when she agreed to participate in this project.
As I told Maya at the start of our work, my fascination with family history has been heavily influenced by her writing. Indeed, I cannot overstate the effect that her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
had on me. I was twenty years old when I read it—and it has been a part of my life ever since. It is a book that I have taught and studied, a book that I love. It was among my mother’s favorite books, something we shared. In researching Maya’s family’s past, I planned to revisit and reexamine some of the characters and settings in the book—to look at scenes and people I thought I knew so well through the lens of genealogy and historical documentation. I was a bit frightened at the prospect. It would be interesting, I thought, as a devoted reader to see how a great artist had molded experience to her own artistic purposes. But as a historian I feared that the power of Maya’s work would somehow be diminished by the genealogical or historical experience on which her memories were based. As it turns out, I had nothing at all to fear. Our research only confirmed her memories and has made her work even more rewarding to contemplate. We even found new stories, which I hope that she will one day narrate in her own voice.
Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her birth name was Marguerite Johnson, and she was the second child of Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter Johnson. I knew from her books that Maya’s childhood was deeply traumatic, and I expected that it would be painful for her to talk about. But I wanted to go over the events, exploring them in terms of her family history, and Maya was willing to oblige. She knows how important this history is. Even her famous first name has its origins in her troubled childhood. It was changed from Marguerite to Maya by her older brother, Bailey, when they were very young—and essentially alone.
“Bailey,” recalled Maya, “used to call me ‘my sister,’ because we were buffeted about and I was the only thing that was his. He was so proud of that. Everybody seemed to have lots of other things, but he had just one sister. So he called me ‘my sister,’ and sometimes he just used to call me ‘mine.’ And then, when he was about nine, I guess, he read about the Mayan Indians. And he was so taken that he said I was Maya. And I kept the name. I love it so, for many, many reasons. It is history with my brother.”
Maya told me that she grew up with little knowledge of her parents. “I was three years old when my parents separated,” she said. “And they sent me and my brother—who was five years old—to my father’s mother. And over the next ten years, save for one disastrous visit, we never heard from them. We would get a note or a card or a doll about every three years, and we poked the eyes out of the doll and buried it upside down, standing on its head. So I knew almost nothing, really, about them.”
The “disastrous visit” that Maya refers to here was an almost unimaginably awful crime. After four years of living in relative happiness with her paternal grandmother, Maya was briefly returned to her mother in St. Louis, where, at age seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When she confessed to her brother, the family exploded in violence. Her uncle is reported to have killed the rapist, and young Maya and her brother were sent back to Arkansas to live with her grandmother. It would be years before Maya lived with her mother again—years filled with pain and private torment.
“I was raped at seven and returned to my grandmother,” she said with little emotion. “And I didn’t talk for six years. Just didn’t say a word.”
Maya’s mother, Vivian Baxter, played a central role in these events, yet Maya and she would eventually reconcile. This is evidence of Vivian’s rather remarkable character and of Maya’s enormous capacity to forgive and heal. Vivian was born on January 19, 1912, in St. Louis, Missouri. She spent much of her later life in San Francisco—moving there in the late 1930s and becoming active in a wide range of progressive causes. Maya rejoined her mother in 1940 and lived with her through her teenage years, gaining exposure to her mother’s views about the world while finding herself drawn into another world—that of dance, literature, and drama. Vivian supported her daughter in all these pursuits—emotionally, if not financially (indeed, Maya worked as a cocktail waitress and a brothel madam in her years as a struggling artist).
Given what I knew of her from Maya’s books, I knew that Maya bore Vivian no ill will and in fact admired her mother greatly. But I was still surprised at the rush of feeling that Maya displayed upon seeing a photograph of Vivian that I had brought.
“She is the bravest human being I ever met,” said Maya without hesitation. “She was a small woman, and she was a very pretty woman. But she was really tough. She’d fight in bars with her brothers. And they were big boys. And she was also very generous. In Stockton, California, on one edge of town there’s a library named for me. And the other edge as you go out, there’s a park named for her. She had an organization called Stockton Black Women for Humanity, and they were generous and caring of those in need. All folks in need. She was a terrible parent of young people. But she was generous.”
Maya recalls that her mother was also an extremely hard worker, devoted to a great number of causes—from union rights to civil rights to feminism. Over the course of an extraordinarily peripatetic life, she worked as a nurse, a real-estate agent, and, almost unbelievably, as a merchant marine. “She was marvelous,” said Maya. “A lot of women sailors ship out of San Francisco—white, black, Asian, Hispanic—because of her. They call her ‘the mother of the sea.’ She was the first. She said, ‘I put my foot in that door. They said women can’t get in the union. I put my foot in that door up to my ass. Women of every color will get in that union, get aboard a ship, and go to sea.’ And they did. She said, ‘I’m going to be a seaman.’ And she was. I mean, she was all sorts of things. I remember I saw her luggage one time, and there was a huge German Luger. She said, ‘If they weren’t ready for me, I was ready for them.’ She was really all of that. She was marvelous. And I wanted to write a book about her, but she said no. So I write essays, you know, I write around her.”
Listening to her talk, it was clear to me that Maya’s feelings about Vivian were shaped by her instincts as an autobiographical artist—by the degree to which she is able to appreciate and enjoy her mother almost as a literary creation. It’s inspiring to watch. But while Maya is able to celebrate her mother, her feelings about her father remain tortured. I showed her a photograph that we found of him, later in life, when he was working in California as a doorman at the Breakers Hotel, and asked her what, if anything, she could remember about him.
“He spoke some French,” she said quietly. “He had been in World War I. He was a proud man, very proud. I didn’t like him. I mean, he was likable—but not to me. Because he was quite accustomed to violence. He was a user of violence. He lived in San Diego and had another family in Mexico. He did things that I don’t agree with as a person, a human being. And he was phony, too. I never liked him.”
Maya’s voice was calm as she spoke about her father, but her sentences were unusually clipped, and it was clear that he had caused her a great deal of pain. She seemed palpably relieved when we stepped back and began to talk about his mother, Annie. Annie was Maya’s paternal grandmother, and the single most important person in her family throughout her childhood. She essentially raised Maya and saved her from disaster, sheltering her through years of silence and pain, allowing her to grow into the remarkable person she is today. In Maya’s books Annie is referred to as Annie Henderson, because Henderson was her second husband’s last name. But Annie’s maiden name was Taylor, and Maya’s eyes lit up and the very mention of her.
“My grandmother was God to me,” she said with tremendous awe and gratitude in her voice. “She told me all the time, she said she didn’t care what people said about me. People would say, ‘You must be an idiot or a moron, ’cause you don’t talk.’ She said she didn’t care. She’d say, ‘Mama know when you and the Good Lord get ready, you are going to be a teacher. You’ll teach all over this world.’ She’d say that often. And I used to sit there and think, This poor ignorant woman, Good Lord. I mean, I would never speak. So I can’t imagine how she could know that. She went to the fourth grade in school. She taught herself her figures and reading, and she owned a store, but how she could look at me, this little girl, physically and psychologically bruised and say, ‘You’re going to be a teacher and teach all over the world’—how could she? I’ll never know. But each time I go to stand up before five thousand people and they pay to come in to hear a black woman speak, I think about my grandma.”
Annie is a fascinating person. She was born in Columbia County, Arkansas, in 1877, the child of freed slaves. During the course of her long life, she would become a leader of the black community in Stamps, Arkansas, owning the only grocery store in that small town. Over six feet tall, powerful and commanding yet immensely kind, Annie left a searing impression upon her granddaughter. “She spoke softly,” recalls Maya. “But in church she would shatter the windows. She had this ability. Every Sunday she would sing. The preacher would say, ‘And now we will be privileged with a song of Sister Henderson.’ And every Sunday my grandmother, for ten years, she sang the same song: ‘I am a cold pilgrim of sorrow, I walk in this wide world alone.’ I mean, this woman could sing, oh, Lord.”
Maya recalls that she rarely left her grandmother’s side during the years they lived together. And given this, and the fact that Maya did not speak for many of those years, one might be tempted to think that she would have little memory of the larger world in which she grew up. But in reality Maya was an astute observer of life in the Jim Crow South. She has written about it eloquently in her books many times, describing Stamps, where she spent much of her childhood, as a place in which segregation was so complete that most black children “didn’t really know what white looked like.”
“I remember never believing that whites were really real,” Maya once wrote. And when I asked her how she was affected by segregation, she thought for a long time before answering. “Segregation shaped me, and education liberated me,” she said. “And I don’t mean formal education. Or not just formal education. I remember once there were a group of girls who lived on land my grandmother owned. And she owned much of the land behind the town. And they were white. And if they came into the store and my uncle was there, he had to give them anything they wanted, because he was a black man, and although he was crippled, if he didn’t do what they wanted, they could simply say he made a pass at them. And that would be the end of it. They could blackmail him. But once they came and my grandmother was there. Uncle Willy had scooted out and gone somewhere next door to save himself. And these girls, one stood up on her hands to show herself. She said, ‘Lookit here, Annie.’ And she stood up, and she had no drawers on. No panties. So insulting. And I just cried. I wanted my grandmother to show that she was God and zap them. But of course she did no such thing. But I remember when she came to me after the girls were gone, she said, ‘Don’t cry, sister, don’t worry about that, don’t worry. It won’t always be that way.’ And I couldn’t imagine the time when things would be different—but it came. Finally, it did come.”
This story, to my mind, is a powerfully concise evocation of the pervasive evil that was the Jim Crow era, and the myriad, small ways its forms of insult and humiliation manifested themselves. Its details remind me of so many things I recall hearing from my parents during my own youth, but tiny details most histories of the period ignore. As Maya spoke, I grew increasingly amazed, as she was, that we ever survived those years. But then, moving back another generation on her paternal line, we looked to Annie’s parents, Maya’s paternal great-grandparents, to see an even worse period in our history.
Annie was the daughter of Mary “Kentucky” Wafford and Emanuel Taylor. Both were born into slavery—Emanuel around 1850 in Louisiana and Mary on August 20, 1853, in Columbia County, Arkansas. We do not know any more about Emanuel, but Mary lived until 1935, and Maya has vivid memories of her from her childhood.
“She was tough,” Maya recalled. “She controlled the African American area of Stamps. She was the arbiter of right and wrong. Not talking loud. But tough. She was this tiny woman who had come from Texarkana or Magnolia, wherever she was, with all her daughters, including my grandmother, twice her size, six feet tall.
Copyright © 2009 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.