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Angelou's 4-Year Search for Grandson : Kidnaping Spurs Emotional Odyssey

June 12, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes we think we have found the place, the niche, and my insight is that we should keep on our traveling shoes, that we are in process, every one of us, and we should keep on the traveling shoes and be ready. . . .

--Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou had completed another incredible journey, and now she was prepared to talk about it--her four-year happy-ending search for her only grandchild, who had been kidnaped by his mother. Angelou, her eyes filling with tears, asked, "Can you imagine the feeling, to be walking out of a store and see someone with your grandchild's picture on the side of a milk carton or a shopping bag? . . . "It's the most outrageous thing, I mean it's all you can do to keep from going up to that person who's got the bagful of potato chips and saying, 'That's mine!' "

A year has passed since the day--June 6, it was--when, after years of frustration and flagging hopes, Angelou, 58, the much-honored author and poet, picked up a telephone in Austin, Tex., called her son in California and said, "Guy Johnson, I have my hands on him."

Angelou's odyssey began on April 13, 1981, when, as prearranged, the child's mother, Sharon, who then lived in San Francisco, picked up her 5-year-old son, Colin, at the house in Santa Rosa where he lived with his father, who had been granted legal custody after their divorce.

"It was a normal visit," Angelou said. "The mother had visiting rights once a month and she had come to take him for the weekend. But she and Guy had a row, a huge row" and this time the mother did not return on Sunday evening with Colin.

It would be four years before he would see his father and his grandmother again.

In those years, Angelou said, her son, then a personnel analyst for Sonoma County, "used all his salary, his savings. He had nothing, completely flat. And I had spent over $100,000--private detectives, sometimes bribes, I mean, I became a patsy for any con, but how could I not follow up? All they needed was $3,000, you know. . . . "

Angelou was in Los Angeles recently to promote "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes" (Random House: $15.95), the new volume in the continuing autobiography that began with publication in 1969 of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." And to celebrate her 58th birthday in the Bay Area with her son, her grandson and her longtime friend, Jessica Mitford.

The dedication of that first book had been to "MY SON, GUY JOHNSON, AND ALL THE STRONG BLACK BIRDS OF PROMISE who defy the odds and gods and sing their songs." He is her only child, born out of wedlock when she was 16, and between them exists an extraordinary bond.

In her new book, she writes of her years in Ghana, of that awful summer day in 1962 when, on the third day in a country that promised her and her 17-year-old son such glorious adventure, Guy's neck was broken in an automobile accident. She writes of her rage, her self-pity, and of the cheerful determination with which he fought his way back.

To understand all of this is to understand that nothing was going to stop Maya Angelou from finding Guy's son and bringing him home.

Missing for a Year

Colin Ashanti Johnson had been missing for a year when Guy Johnson's 20-year-old neck injury began to plague him; calcium deposits had attached to his spine and Johnson, tall and husky and athletic, was starting to have serious coordination problems. Soon, he was at Children's Hospital in San Francisco, paralyzed from the neck down.

"I don't want to speak in purple prose because it's not my style," Angelou said, recalling those days, "but when I say he was beside himself. . . . "

Angelou left her home in Winston-Salem, N. C., where she has a lifetime appointment as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, to be by her son's side. It was, eerily, almost a replay of the hospital scene two decades earlier in Ghana but this time it was Johnson, despondent as well over the disappearance of his son, who had hit emotional bottom.

Angelou remembers him telling her, "Mother, I refuse to live a talking head. And though you're my Momma and though I'm your only child, and I know you love me, I have to ask you something no one should ever ask a mother. If there's no chance of recovery, I have to ask you to pull the plug and let me go."

Well, Angelou said, smiling as she recalled the startled faces of the intensive-care nurses, "When I really understood what he was asking me, I mean, I started screaming--'Total recovery, that's what I'll accept, total! I see you walking, standing, riding. Total!' "

A Turning Point

It was, perhaps, a turning point. Johnson looked at Angelou, started to laugh and said, "Ma, ma, control yourself. There's some sick people in this place." Now, three years later, Angelou claps her hands and laughs aloud as she remembers that moment.

Two days later he was talking about Colin: "Momma, if I could just see his face. He's a good kid, isn't he? He's a strong boy, isn't he?"

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