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Maya Angelou addresses a large crowd of students at Boston College's Robsham Theater Arts Center in the 1980s. (Burns Library, Boston College)

Growing Up Maya Angelou

The famed writer discusses her childhood, her writing and the importance of family

Well, my mom was a terrible parent of young children. And thank God—I thank God every time I think of it—I was sent to my paternal grandmother. Ah, but my mother was a great parent of a young adult. When she found out I was pregnant, she said, “All right. Run me a bath, please.” Well, in my family, that’s really a very nice thing for somebody to ask you to do. Maybe two or three times in my life she had asked me to run her a bath. So I ran her a bath and then she invited me in the bathroom. My mother sat down in the bathtub. She asked me, “Do you love the boy?” I said no. “Does he love you?” I said no. “Well, there’s no point in ruining three lives. We’re going to have us a baby.”

And she delivered Guy—because she was a nurse also. She took me to the hospital. It was during one of the Jewish holidays, and my doctor wasn’t there. My mother went in, told the nurses who she was, she washed up, they took me into the delivery room. She got up on the table on her knees with me and put her shoulder against my knee and took my hand, and every time a pain would come she’d tell a joke. I would laugh and laugh [she laughs uproariously] and bear down. And she said, “Here he comes, here he comes.” And she put her hand on him first, my son.

So throughout her life she liberated me. Liberated me constantly. Respected me, respected what I tried to do, believed in me. I’d go out in San Francisco—I’d be visiting her, I was living in Los Angeles—and stay really late at some afterhours joint. Mother knew all of them and knew all the bartenders. And I’d be having a drink and laughing, and the bartender would say on the phone, “Yeah, Mama, yeah she’s here.” She’d say to me: “Baby, it’s your mother. Come home. Let the streets know you have somewhere to go.”

It seems your mother and Bailey always came to your rescue. Were they more vigilant, do you think, because you didn’t speak for so long?

All those years ago I’d been a mute, and my mother and my brother knew that in times of strife and extreme stress, I was likely to retreat to mutism. Mutism is so addictive. And I don’t think its powers ever go away. It’s as if it’s just behind my view, just behind my right shoulder or my left shoulder. If I move quickly, it moves, so I can’t see it. But it’s always there saying, “You can always come back to me. You have nothing to do—just stop talking.” So, when I’ve been in stress, my mother or my brother, or both sometimes, would come wherever I was, New York, California, anywhere, and say, “Hello, hello, talk to me. Come on, let’s go. We’ll have a game of Scrabble or pinochle and let’s talk. Tell me a story.” Because they were astute enough to recognize the power of mutism, I finally was astute enough to recognize the power of their love.

What went through your mind during the years you were mute?

Oh, yes, I memorized poetry. I would test myself, memorizing a conversation that went by when I wasn’t in it. I memorized 60 Shakespearean sonnets. And some of the things I memorized, I’d never heard them spoken, so I memorized them according to the cadence that I heard in my head. I loved Edgar Allan Poe and I memorized everything I could find. And I loved Paul Laurence Dunbar—still do—so I would memorize 75 poems. It was like putting a CD on. If I wanted to, I’d just run through my memory and think, that’s one I want to hear.

So I believe that my brain reconstructed itself during those years. I believe that the areas in the brain which provide and promote physical speech had nothing to do. I believe that the synapses of the brain, instead of just going from A to B, since B wasn’t receptive, the synapses went from Ato R. You see what I mean? And so, I’ve been able to develop a memory quite unusual, which has allowed me to learn languages, really quite a few. I seem to be able to direct the brain; I can say, do that. I say, remember this, remember that. And it’s caught! [She snaps her fingers as if to emphasize “caught.”]

You lived with your grandmother during your silent years. How did she respond?

She said, “Sister, Momma don’t care what these people say, that you must be an idiot, a moron, ’cause you can’t talk. Momma don’t care. Momma know that when you and the good Lord get ready, you gon’ be a teacher.”

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