Revealing Roots: Maya Angelou Breaks the Silence

Determined to break her family's silence about the slavery in their roots, the poet who, as her grandmother predicted, would "teach all over this world" speaks out about coming to terms with old secrets through the genealogy project African-American Lives.

Getty Images
Getty Images

We are fascinated by slavery today. And it’s not a minute too soon. We see what has happened. We know that she who does not know where she has come from cannot possibly guide a path to where she has to go.

Maya Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. Her birth name was Marguerite Johnson, and she was the second child of Bailey Johnson and Vivian Baxter Johnson. Her first name was changed from Marguerite to Maya by her older brother, Bailey, when they were very young — and essentially alone.

Angelou grew up with little knowledge of her parents. “I was 3 years old when my parents separated,” she said. “And they sent me and my brother — who was 5 years old — to my father’s mother. And over the next 10 years, save for one disastrous visit, we never heard from them.”

Angelou 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 the world of dance, literature and drama. Vivian supported her daughter in all these pursuits — emotionally, if not financially (indeed, Angelou worked as a cocktail waitress and a brothel madam in her years as a struggling artist).

“She is the bravest human being I ever met,” said Angelou. “She was a small, very pretty woman. But she was really tough. She’d fight in bars with her brothers. She was also very generous.

“In Stockton, Calif., there’s a library named for me on one edge of town. And on the other edge of town there’s a park named for her. She had an organization called Stockton Black Women for Humanity, and they were generous and caring about those in need.”

Her mother was devoted to a great number of causes — from union rights to civil rights to feminism. She worked as a nurse, a real estate agent and, almost unbelievably, as a merchant marine. “She was marvelous,” said Angelou. “A lot of women sailors ship out of San Francisco today — white, black, Asian, Hispanic — because of her. They call her ‘the mother of the sea.’ She was the first. She said, ‘I’m going to be a seaman.’ I wanted to write a book about her, but she said no. So I write essays. I write around her.”

While Angelou is able to celebrate her mother, her feelings about her father remain tortured. “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. 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.”

She seemed palpably relieved when we stepped back and began to talk about his mother, Annie, Angelou’s paternal grandmother — the single most important person in her family throughout her childhood. She essentially raised Angelou and saved her from disaster, sheltering her through years of silence and pain, allowing her to grow into the remarkable person she is today.