She was born Marguerite, but her brother, Bailey, nicknamed her Maya (”mine”). As little children, they were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. Their early world revolved around this remarkable woman and the store she ran for the black community. White people were more than strangers – they were from another planet. And yet, even unseen, they ruled.
The Store was a microcosm of life: its orderly pattern was a comfort, even among the meanest frustrations. But then came the intruders – first in the form of taunting poor white children who were bested only by the grandmother’s dignity. But as the awful, unfathomable mystery of prejudice intruded, so did the unexpected joy of a surprise visit by Daddy, the sinful joy of going to Church, the disappointments of a Depression Christmas.
A visit to St. Louis and the Most Beautiful Mother in the World ended in tragedy – rape. Thereafter, Maya refused to speak, except in to the person closest to her, Bailey. Eventually, Maya and Bailey followed their mother to California. There, the formative phase of her life (as well as this book) comes to a close with the painful discovery of the true nature of her father, the emergence of a hard-won independence, and – perhaps most important – a baby, born out of wedlock, loved and kept.
Superbly told – with the poet’s gift for language and observation, and charged with the unforgettable emotion of remembered anguish and love – this remarkable autobiography by an equally remarkable black woman from Arkansas captures, indelibly, a world of which most Americans are shamefully ignorant.