Maya Angelou’s fans began arriving and assembling at the Union Square Barnes and Noble hours before her 7 p.m. appearance on Tuesday. As early as 4 p.m., the fourth floor was filled to capacity–more than 250 people–and the store’s security guards stationed themselves at the escalator, blocking any more people from ascending.
The famed writer was in town to promote her latest book, “Mom & Me & Mom,” which is mainly about the years she spent reconciling with her mother. In effect, it is the most recent edition in a string of engrossing autobiographies that have brought her enormous popularity and placed her among the leading authors in the nation.
Those arriving to the event after 6 p.m., as this reporter did, were confined to the third floor and were at the mercy of monitors that were visible but barely audible. That proved to be of little consequence, because Angelou didn’t speak that long–perhaps about seven or eight minutes–and devoted the rest of the evening to signing books.
Fewer than 200 pages long, the book, written in Angelou’s always smooth and elegant style, is a quick read, and those familiar with her other books will encounter many scenes and episodes they’ve read before. Even so, like a jazz musician improvising on a well-known tune, she spins the narrative differently, providing details that were not disclosed in previous accounts.
But it is momentarily disconcerting when there are inconsistencies from one book to another, however minor they may be. For example, in Angelou’s first book, the immensely rewarding “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she cites this dramatic moment when she and her brother Bailey arrive in Stamps, Ark.: “When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists.”
In “Mom,” she recalls: “I was three and Bailey was five when we arrived in Stamps, Ark. We had identification tags on our arms and no adult supervision.”
And when Angelou recounts her introduction to lesbianism in “I Know Why,” the book she refers to as “The Well of Loneliness.” In “Mom,” it just becomes “The Well.” Clearly, she could have used some editorial support.
While it is possible to find many instances when memory fails and the details are not exactly the same, Angelou redeems all of such discrepancies with the power of her words, the way she can pull a reader into her emotional center and make them believe in the exaltation or pain she’s experiencing.
If her mother, Vivian Baxter, is not present in Angelou’s early years, she is later on during her daughter’s teen years, and to a great extent, the author deftly connects those years from “I Know Why” to “Mom.”
Recalling that connection to her mother gives Angelou another opportunity to comb through her exciting life, and unlike in “The Heart of a Woman” and “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” where her focus is steered otherwise, her mother is the centerpiece in this most recent book.
There is sure to come a time when some enterprising scholar will complete a full dissertation of Angelou’s work–and there’s a good chance it’s already been done–and perhaps then we will have a more accurate and factual account of her life.
Until then, despite the inconsistencies, her story remains as riveting as ever and her fans will be less concerned with picayune items and more interested in the big picture of her days that bring our own into sharper relief.