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.

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Getty Images

In Angelou’s books Annie is referred to as Annie Henderson. Angelou’s eyes lit up at the very mention of her. “My grandmother was God to me. She would say, ‘Mama know when you and the Good Lord get ready, you are going to be a teacher. You’ll teach all over this world.’

“How could she look at me, physically and psychologically bruised as I was, and say, ‘You’re going to be a teacher and teach all over the world’? Every time I stand up before 5,000 people who pay to come in to hear a black woman speak, I think about my grandma.”

Annie was born in Columbia County, Ark., in 1877, the child of freed slaves. During the course of her long life, she would become a leader of the black community in Stamps, Ark., owning the only grocery store in that small town.

“She controlled the African-American area of Stamps and was the arbiter of right and wrong,” Angelou said. More than six feet tall, powerful and commanding yet immensely kind, Annie left a searing impression upon her granddaughter.

We researched Angelou’s great-grandparents, moving back to the previous generation in her paternal line. Annie was the daughter of Mary “Kentucky” Wafford and Emanuel Taylor. Both were born into slavery — Emanuel around 1850 in Louisiana and Mary on Aug. 20, 1853, in Columbia County, Ark. We do not know any more about Emanuel, but Mary lived until 1935, and Angelou has vivid memories of her from her childhood. We continued to follow Angelou’s bloodline using modern genealogical tools and methodology.

Angelou clearly enjoyed the story of her great-grandmother’s name and of the power she wielded in her community. But although Angelou knew that Mary Wafford spent the first twelve years of her life in slavery, as did many of her relatives, the fact was never discussed in Angelou ‘s family.

As curious as Angelou and her siblings and cousins may have been about their elders, they never asked about their slave pasts. This, as I have found throughout this genealogy project, seems to have been the rule in black families. We simply did not talk about slavery. Angelou agreed and is as fascinated by the subject as I am.

“We talked about it by not talking about it,” Angelou said. “Like quilts, right? Younger people don’t realize the value of quilts. But during slavery, when people were sold, the slave would cut off a little piece of his father’s shirt or a little piece of her mother’s skirt and pin it inside their own shirt. And they would finally make a quilt of those little patches.

“A patched quilt had a lot to do with saving one’s sanity. You could keep a small piece of your family. To touch it and smell it. And when you had children, you would tell the story. This was your great-grandfather’s; this was your grandmother’s, this skirt here. But slavery wasn’t spoken of …

“I had grandfathers and great-grandfathers who were killed, who disappeared, because they spoke back to some white man. That was never spoken about. We just did not ask, ‘What happened to Grandfather So-and-So? What happened to him?’ We just did not. Grandmother would not admit to anything. You know?

“This generation is avid, eager, champing at the bit to know: ‘Tell me more, and let me tell the people more about their history.’ It’s very important. But it wasn’t always so.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.

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