What Maya Angelou’s New Book Can Teach Us About Single Motherhood.

Black mother-daughter relationships have been criminally under-explored in literature. There are a few truly great offerings available (Silver Sparrow, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, and Sula* spring to mind), there’s a dearth of work that evaluates the nuance and complexity of black mothers’ relationships to their daughters. A lot of what we get are “bad mother” tales, with little light or love: PUSH, The Darkest Child, and 32 Candles** spring to mind). The problem with the latter is that, even though there are some truly horrid, ruthless, unsympathetic black single mothers, more often, mothers are not entirely villainous. We rarely get to experience relationships that gradate, from cold to compassionate, from abandoning to embracing, from rejection to redemption.

Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom — out tomorrow — seems to be just the change we need.  In a touching, expansive, and beautiful excerpt posted at The Guardian last Friday, Angelou discusses how her mother sent her to live with her grandmother, then reunited with her at the age of 13.

What struck us most, though, was Angelou’s account of how her mother received the news that Angelou was expecting a child at the age of 17:

When I was 17 I had a baby. My mother never made me feel as if I brought scandal to the family. 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.

I found a job when my son was two months old. I went to Mother and told her, “Mother, I am going to move.”

“You are going to leave my house?” She was shocked.

I said, “Yes. I have found a job, and a room with cooking privileges down the hall, and the landlady will be the babysitter.”

She looked at me half pityingly and half proud.

She said, “All right, you go, but remember this: when you cross my doorstep, you have already been raised. With what you have learned from your Grandmother Henderson in Arkansas and what you have learned from me, you know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. Don’t let anybody raise you from the way you have been raised. Know you will always have to make adaptations, in love relationships, in friends, in society, in work, but don’t let anybody change your mind. And then remember this: you can always come home.”

The idea that the arrival of a child — whether planned or unplanned — is “life being life,” not a shameful mistake, a stupid decision, or the end of the world, is a healthy one. And we loved Baxter’s welcoming attitude. It’s important to draw clear lines for young mothers: our children are our responsibility. This is especially useful if the young mother has been well-raised, herself. It shows both your confidence in her rearing and her ability to rear, encouraging her to be fiercely independent. But it’s equally important and deeply loving to have an “open-door policy,” allowing a young mother the option to come home, temporarily, if striking out on her own with a newborn proves more than she can handle.

  • Will you be reading Mom & Me & Mom? (We will!) 
  • What are some of your favorite books about black mother-daughter relationships?
  • How did your mother take the news that you were expecting? 

We’d love to hear from you!

* In Sula, her mother may seem cruel when she makes the memorable — iconic, really — confession that she loves, but doesn’t like her (narcissistic, arguably sociopathic) daughter. But it’s the honesty of it — and the fact that it’s an opinion informed by lifelong observation — that makes it such a nuanced claim. 

** 32 Candles is a fantastic novel. It’s important to stress that. But the main character’s mom is off-the-charts evil, from beginning to end. 

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