Maya Angelou: my terrible, wonderful mother

From The Guardian:

The first decade of the 20th 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. Later she would grow up and be called beautiful. As a grown woman she would be known as the butter-coloured lady with the blowback hair.

Maya-Angelou-with-her-mot-006My mother, who was to remain a startling beauty, met my father, a handsome soldier, in 1924. Bailey Johnson had returned from the first world war with officer's honours and a fake French accent. They were unable to restrain themselves. They fell in love while Vivian's brothers walked around him threateningly. He had been to war, and he was from the south, where a black man learned early that he had to stand up to threats, or else he wasn't a man. The Baxter boys could not intimidate Bailey Johnson, especially after Vivian told them to lay off. Vivian's parents were not happy that she was marrying a man from the south who was neither a doctor nor lawyer. He said he was a dietician. The Baxters said that meant he was just a negro cook. Vivian and Bailey left the contentious Baxter atmosphere and moved to California, where little Bailey was born. I came along two years later. My parents soon proved to each other that they couldn't stay together. They were matches and gasoline. They even argued about how they were to break up. Neither wanted the responsibility of taking care of two toddlers. They separated and sent me and Bailey to my father's mother in Arkansas. I was three and Bailey was five when we arrived in Stamps, Arkansas. We had identification tags on our arms and no adult supervision. I learned later that Pullman car porters and dining car waiters were known to take children off trains in the north and put them on other trains heading south.

Save for one horrific visit to St Louis, we lived with my father's mother, Grandmother Annie Henderson, and her other son, Uncle Willie, in Stamps until I was 13. The visit to St Louis lasted only a short time but I was raped there and the rapist was killed. I thought I had caused his death because I told his name to the family. Out of guilt, I stopped talking to everyone except Bailey. I 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. My mother and her family tried to woo me away from mutism, but they didn't know what I knew: that my voice was a killing machine. They soon wearied of the sullen, silent child and sent us back to Grandmother Henderson in Arkansas, where we lived quietly and smoothly within my grandmother's care and under my uncle's watchful eye.

More here.