The Day I Met My Dead Black Mother
Updated: Jan 24
After a chance meeting with Maya Angelou at age 17, my life would never be the same again
We’d heard that she was landing on the garden in a helicopter. There was no way that it could be true, but the chaperone twitched the thick, red, dusty curtains anyway, and then it was true. He said that it was true. She was getting out of a helicopter. Into the garden.
We’d just piled out of a rusting 15-seater mini-bus, twelve badly dressed 18 year olds with far too many ideas and far too little humility to learn how to use them, and jostled for seats in a country hotel ante-room, shifting nervously in the deep, balding armchairs, trying to guess where the guest of honour would sit, and how could we get closer please thank you.
But at the same time no one wanted to admit that we didn’t really want to be too close – maybe she would ask us a question, maybe she’d expect a poem or a paragraph recited to prove our respect, our deep enduring knowledge of her work, and our intention to be just like her one day, when we grow up.
Only one of us knew her work, the rest of us has only just learnt of her existence barely three hours previous, after which we had piled into the nearest bookstore and devoured random chapters with no chronological reverence, and tried to memorise just one line, a good one, an impressive one.
We knew instantly that she was big. And we were being told how very lucky we were, unbelievably so. The chaperones looked petrified, like this was an accident they were watching in slow-motion, their teenage wards all plunging into a canyon that had unexpectedly opened up in the street and the voices of our grieving, rage-full parents were already ringing in their ears.
But we knew we were lucky. Adults don’t go stiff and giggly for just anyone. A star was about to arrive. And I was about to meet my mother.
In 1999, a group of twelve gifted teenagers were assembled from a forty mile radius in South Wales, scooped out of local high schools after winning a writing competition and offered a scholarship to attend the Hay Literature Festival, the enduring major International literary, music and lecture event erected temporarily for a week each June amongst the cottages and quaint pubs of the small border town of Hay-on–Wye, the blue-green lazy river Wye of the town’s title drawing an outline along the western edge of it’s pretty homes and secreted galleries.
Bookshelves line the town walls in Hay-on-Wye
I knew from childhood that the festival was a big deal. My mother had worked in a Hay bookshop as a teenager, disturbing the greying layers of dust, built up like tree rings, with worn hardbacks and soft, suede-like pink paperbacks rammed untidily into latticed spinning displays, the pulpy romance novels for women undeserving of a place on a real bookshelf. It was a place that she had stories in, a location in time where my over-bearing father was absent, and her actions were strange, fleeting moments that I held on to as myths, far off fantasies of my mother as a young woman, a person all of her own.
I also believed from this early time that I would never go to the festival. My parents did not go to cultural events, my father having a very strict bad attitude to anything that had the potential to make him feel stupid. Which vetoed attendance at anything that might involve literature, music, film, art, history, dance or science. My mother watched on, dumb, paralysed by his anger.
She did take us to the town occasionally though, Saturday afternoons spent sifting through the ten’s of second-hand bookshops that line every street with the smell of warm, dry mold and the promise of utter delight spread across faded, brown, crispy pages. Known as ‘The Town of Books’, there was little else there to keep one occupied. And I thought it was absolute heaven.
For 10 days each June, Hay-on-Wye is taken over by the Hay Festival, and plays host to literary, as well as music, film and intellectual giants
The scholarship granted the gifted, or shall we say at the very least ‘interested’ teens, an open ticket to experience the festival from within, including special workshops on writing from the visiting authors (Carol Ann Duffy encouraged me to describe a water fall as ‘misogynistic’ during a poetry workshop… though, this might be hearsay... shall we just say that she didn’t cross it off the page, most likely her consternation allowing that one to slip by in the moment), tickets to all the major gigs and author interviews fanned out from the chaperone’s hands, letting twelve hungry, horny and completely inept kids set out amongst the crowds of readers, writers, filmmakers, singers and fans to ‘learn something’, to ‘be encouraged’, to ‘have aspirations raised’.
In most cases though, it was more like those aspirations were being stretched on a rack, and no amount of kicking and screaming would stop the crank turning. It’s a nice thought to save oneself from oneself. But it wasn’t their thought to have. I was happy to take the tickets and run though: I had achieved the impossible, and I had found where I belonged.
I am hyper sensitive to my surroundings, I always have been. Growing up with a bipolar parent, the unpredictable was only survivable if your sense of space, position, and the horizon is sharp. I was always ready, hunkered down in a cat-like pre-pounce stance everywhere I went, one step ahead of the ever-possible danger of temper tantrums, tirades of criticism, or spontaneous activities that involved bundling everyone including the dog into the car and driving up the mountain to run across it, or go to the pub.
I had to be concerned with the macro. The micro passed me by unnoticed. Ask me what my mother wore to work, what kind of car we drove, what colour my sisters hair was, what my aunt’s nose reminded me of – there’s nothing there. No details, vision of the minutia.
So when Maya Angelou opened her wide, blood red lips for the first time, I had a cinematic experience of my first physical detail in another human being.
The story we had been told was this: flying in to the Hay Literature Festival of 1999, Maya Angelou, renown author, poet, civil rights activist and film maker, had heard tale of a ragtag group of young, possibly disadvantaged, teens attending the festival to gain insight and inspiration beyond the restrictions of their rural, uncultured upbringings. She had asked the organisers to meet us and give us an injection of this aforementioned inspiration.
A sit down meeting was hastily organised, the chaperones of our group desperately bundling us into the minibus that carted us daily between the hostel and festival site, and seating us just in time for the legend to descend – literally - from the heavens, and slather her Southern wit and wisdom on us before floating off effortlessly to her next appointment – most likely the seat on stage affront gawping, admiring ticketholders on the festivals main stage. Here she would “hold…a thousand-head audience in her grip like a woman tickling a huge trout,” wrote John Walsh in the Independent as the festival closed.
So there we were, twelve little white, skinny sardines squashed uncomfortably amongst old-fashioned furniture and awkward, bulbous side tables, waiting for a legend to walk across the unimpressive hotel garden, and into reality, a place and space where an impossible human being would become real for us, and greet us with the fantastical “how do’ya do”.
Maya Angelou, taping her Oprah Winfrey Masterclass in 2011
A large, semi-throne-like brute of a chair was dragged to the edge of our jagged semi-circle, and Maya Angelou crossed what seemed like a vast empty space at the back of the room in three easy strides before sitting and instantly looking comfortable.
The seating area was too small for the twelve kids and two chaperones to sit comfortably, so having extended my natural chivalry to the rest of the group (mostly the girls, one of whom I was hopelessly in love with, a first taste of delightful lust and obsession with a stranger, an exotic peer - foreign for the fact that she went to a school 30 miles away from mine, and wore trainers that looked like scoops of ice-cream peeping from the ends of her flared jeans), I had ended up chair-less, with no time to source one before the VIP arrival.
So I sat on the cold, dusty floor boards, cross legged, feeling so minute, so invisible, that I didn’t believe for a moment that the woman who had nearly stepped on me whilst she gracefully sashayed into her seat a mere foot away from my body would have even noticed that I was there. I was an afterthought, a hastily stowed item, not needed and not likely to be remembered once put down.
But I was left little time to fall into my usual pit of despair and painful obscurity (a role I often inhabited when my father was on the low trough of his oscillating mood patterns). Maya Angelou looked down at me, a full and destroying look of actual seeing, of real and unadultered recognition, and she said,
“You’ll have to sit on a lot more hard wood floors, and drink a lot more cheap red wine before you get where you are going”.
And with that, I was born.
I was sitting at the feet of my second mother, the person who gave me my new life, the one I could now live in the body that she had addressed, a life that I knew at that very moment was mine, all mine, and I was a person who was allowed to live it.
Playing the role of protector to my biological mother and sister for my entire childhood had stripped me of any sense that I might ever be able to have my own existence, one that did not reference my father in every moment.
I was weeping tearlessly, convulsed with a painful ecstasy that hit me over and over like waves, a rip tide of agony and confusion and freedom and wonder. I was an atom split, fragments of awe and thanks. I was sitting at the feet of my big, bold, larger-than-life, black, impossible, other mother.
I had never met a black woman before. TV cannot prepare you for this. Her voice. Her voice was a recording, being played back to us on a scratchy gramophone, her mouth the scalloped horn allowing the deep, guttural cracks of well-worn sounds to enter the room amplified, louder and bigger and made of something more solid than speech – her words were glass orbs snowing down on us, and settling white and crystalline on the upholstery all around. It was song. It was water. It was solidified love. I could not take my eyes off her mouth.
Her lips were blood blood red. Redder than anything I have ever seen since. Redder than any red has ever been. Her mouth was the size of her whole head, each word spoken moving every part of her face so that watching her is overwhelming, there is just too much to comprehend, too much communicated.
I want it to be a film I can rewind, pause, rewatch, rewind, slow-mo replay, pause, process, play, stop. Breathe. She’s too much to take in, she is too unreal. She’s right here at the end of my nose. I can feel her, warm, pulsing, the most robust form of frail I have ever seen. I’m sure that her teeth are bigger than my hands and I want to see where her mouth ends – her lips seem to go inwards, and I want desperately to reach into her mouth and trace their outline, find where they end, if they ever do.
I remember little of what she said. I did ask her a question, but I don’t remember the answer. None of that mattered. It wasn’t the words that I needed to carry, no record could contain her. She did all she needed to do, she lifted me up and gave me the life that so many credit her with giving them – strength, inspiration, beauty, art, validation. And she didn’t need to use her words to become my loving mother. She just needed to look at me. She saw me. And I was born.
As a requirement of attending the festival on the scholarship, each of us hungry little imps needed to produce two poems, which would then be published in a youth anthology. This was beyond exciting for me, as by the time I was 18 I had already completed three ‘self-published’ poetry anthologies, replete with illustrations and ‘fancy’ font choices. They also needed to be submitted back to our English teachers to prove that the week off school in the all-important exam period was worth the risk of our complete disengagement.
I’ve since lost all record of the official poems that I wrote at the end of that time, but when I got home from a week lost in hazy June fields, beautiful women standing out in well-dressed crowds, town benches and a small secluded river beach where four of the girls sneaked off to with two bottles of acrid white wine and our notebooks before dinner one day, I wrote a poem that to this day is my favourite.
I gave up writing poetry shortly after typing this one up and presenting it to my father. I think it was the full stop on my childhood. And now I think of it as the thank you that I wish I had had the chance to send to Maya Angelou whilst she lived; I don’t hold any regret though, just an eternal debt of gratitude to my dead black mother.
Becoming a Diamond
A famous woman once said
“Time and pressure create a diamond.”
My dad sat back,
He sipped his wine
and looked over my shoulder.
“It also makes coal,” he smiled churlishly.
I was ready for him.
“Only if you let it,” I said.
Jen Evans is a writer, Transformation Coach and Wellness expert. She directs Balance + Flow Coaching, empowering women to live in purpose, passion and vitality. She lives in South Wales with her partner Liz, writing novels and tending her herb garden.