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

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?”

Police had turned up no leads and at that moment Angelou decided to call in private detectives, telling them, “I don’t care what you do, just find my grandson so that boy can be shown to his dad.”

Johnson’s medical crisis was not over, even though he was fighting now and his mother was telling nurses, “My son will walk out of this hospital.” The nurses listened, and then told her the facts: His spinal column was too fragile to even blow on and there was a blood clot sitting on it that had to be removed.

As Angelou told her story, her voice again rose to a shout: “I said, ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. I’m going to somebody much higher than you, much higher. You did the best you knew to do and I have no argument with you. But now I’ve gone somewhere else.’ ”

The surgeries were a success. One morning, Angelou said, the nurse awakened her and said, “ ‘Good news.’ We went in and she pulled the sheets off Guy’s feet and there was one toe (wiggling).” The joy of that moment, now relived, made Angelou once again slap her hands together and laugh.

Now, the search for Colin would intensify.

Lead after lead faded. “I knew,” Angelou said, “I was being taken so many times. Detectives (private investigators) would tell me, ‘I’ve just heard about something in Mexico,’ you know. And it would give them a nice trip. But what could I do?

“The police were very good. They issued a form with Colin’s photo and his mother’s photo, Colin as a missing child, and his mother as a fugitive. Guy joined Child Find so Colin’s photograph was on the milk cartons and shopping bags. I think that must be done, but for the person whose child is missing it is the most outrageous thing. . . . “

As time went on Guy Johnson learned to walk, with forearm canes. He told his mother, “When I have my son back, I want him to see me fine.”

Angelou’s resolve never waivered. “Whenever I’m under stress,” she said, “I go to what my own grand taught me. You know, my back gets stiff, my face becomes calm, I mean it’s all grandma.”

In January of 1985 Angelou decided to remodel her Winston-Salem house, adding a room for her grandson. When the builder asked where her grandson was, she replied, “I don’t know, but this is the evidence of things not seen. You build the room. My grandson will be in that room.” The room finished, she furnished it in red, white and blue, “sort of boyish,” with a poster of Big Bird.

As the months passed, there were letters and phone calls, tips from people who would come up to Angelou after she had given a lecture (she spoke at 60 universities in one three-month period) but all added up to a dead end.

Telephone Call

On May 29, Angelou went to Columbus, Ohio, for a speaking engagement, followed by a reception for her that evening at the governor’s mansion. The next day, she accepted an invitation from her “gentleman friend” (a sociologist at Oberlin) to visit and went to the Columbus airport to rent a car. As she was signing the papers, the Hertz clerk told her she had a telephone call. Angelou was puzzled; who could possibly have known she was there?

It was to be a prophetic call.

Angelou told the story: “A woman’s voice asked, ‘Maya? Have you found your grandson?’ I said I had not and she said, ‘I know where he is. I tried to send you a message last night at the governor’s mansion but the people who had the message couldn’t get close to you.’ ”

Indeed, a message with a name and phone number had been delivered to her before she left for the airport, but she hadn’t yet opened it. “People give you so much stuff,” she said, “you know, poems they want you to evaluate. . . . “

Angelou took in what the woman had been saying and then asked, “How much do you want?” The voice on the telephone said she wanted nothing, then instructed Angelou to wait 30 minutes for her at the airport, adding, “It’s time for you to have your grandchild.”

For a split second, when Angelou saw the woman running toward her, she panicked. Did this woman have a gun? Had she come to kill her? Then the woman came toward her, Angelou said, “and her hands were free and I embraced her. And she said, ‘It’s time.’ ”

The informer, whose identity Angelou protects, had lived in Austin with Colin and his mother before moving to Australia. Returning to Texas two years later, she learned the mother still had made no contact with the boy’s father and she had implored her repeatedly to give the boy a chance to see his family, but to no avail.

Afraid she was betraying a friend, she had not acted but had finally decided, “This is important for Colin. And it’s important for Sharon (the boy’s mother). You can’t live forever this kind of hidden life.”

When the woman, who was then living in Columbus, learned that her boss was going to be at the governor’s reception for Angelou, she had written the note to be hand-delivered.

“So,” Angelou said, “she told me where they were, in Austin,” where the mother, under the assumed name of Clark, was working at a shelter for battered women. She told her that she had dyed Colin’s hair red and changed his name to Luke Clark. By the next morning, Angelou said, “I had lawyers, I’d contacted a judge (in Austin, through a friend).” The following day Angelou flew to Austin.

No Sign of Life

But there was no sign of life at the house where the mother and the boy were believed to live. At Angelou’s request, local television aired an appeal for information with this lead-in: “A grandmother who has been missing her grandson for five years has found out that he’s in the Austin area. She asks the people of Austin to help reunite her with her grandson.” (Angelou’s attorney advised her to remain anonymous for fear of ransom threats.)

Colin’s photo was shown and police telephones began ringing. “They would not stop,” Angelou said, “dentists, preachers, teachers, principals, neighbors . . . “ Angelou had the house surrounded by private detectives, still there was no action--no comings, no goings. Colin and his mother had disappeared.

Angelou, distraught, called the informant in Columbus and accused her, “You rolled over on me.” (What, she wondered, was this woman’s motive? Would she now ask for money?) The woman, denying a double cross, asked for 15 minutes, called Angelou back and begged, “Trust me, Maya. Pull the police back. Pull the FBI back. Pull everybody back. They’re getting ready to run. Pull them back.”

Angelou decided to go along with her, instructing everyone, “Back up, just back up, whatever happens.” That afternoon the informant flew into Austin; in a matter of hours attorneys for Colin’s mother said they were ready to talk. (It turned out that the mother had taken Colin to Oklahoma for the weekend, unaware until tipped off of the search under way in Austin for her and her son.)

To this day, Angelou does not know why the boy’s mother went along with the informant, reasoning only, “She must have known where the bodies were buried.”

Still Skeptical

Guy Johnson was still skeptical and in a telephone call from California asked, “Mom, are you sure about this informer? What does she want?” Angelou was sure--”I know this is it.” Be careful, he told her--”I don’t want my son to see his mother dragged to the ground and carried off in handcuffs.”

The reunion of grandmother and grandson took place at the home of Angelou’s attorney in Austin. The mother was there with her lawyers. Lighting a cigarette, Angelou relived the moment they faced one another: “I said, ‘You know, I’ve come for my grandson. And I’m not leaving without him. So get him. Bring me my grandson.’

“Now, my dear, they opened a door in another room and this person who looks exactly like my son came running in--’Grandma! Grandma!’ I just sat there. I said, ‘My goodness, aren’t you a fine-looking boy! Come and hug me, you’re so fine looking.’ I didn’t want to scare him. If I’d have given vent in the least, I would have leapt all over him.”

They hugged. And then Angelou called her son, who had been waiting at home three days for this call--”I said, ‘Guy Johnson, I have my hands on him. And Colin said, ‘Hello, this is Luke, I mean Colin. . . .’ ”

The plane bringing Angelou and Colin to San Francisco was delayed and it was past midnight when it landed. It was quite a reunion.

“My momma, my papa, my uncles, people from all over Northern California were there,” she said, “and I came down that ramp and there was Guy Johnson with a cane. I had this sleepy person who was leaning all over me and I put his hand into Guy’s and I said, ‘Here’s your son, Guy Johnson, here’s your son.’ ”

Sharon Johnson pleaded guilty to child stealing; Guy Johnson and Angelou asked the court for leniency. Angelou explained, “Guy does not want Colin to think we put his mother in jail. And I explained to Guy that there’s a bond made in the womb between the child and the mother. I mean, that bond is irreducible. Guy agreed, there’s no way we can get any joy out of her being in prison--or get back any of the four years.”

The mother was given five years’ probation by a Sonoma County judge and ordered to do community service. Recently, Johnson gave her permission to take their son, unsupervised, for a weekend. And Colin will spend six weeks with his mother this summer. (Attorneys for the mother did not respond to requests for comment.)

Angelou’s eyes welled with tears again and she said, “Guy is really something. I’m blessed. I’m so proud of him. God, he’s a good soul.”

As for her former daughter-in-law, Angelou paused, sighed and said, “My family and that family are tied together for the rest of our lives. We’ve got to work out something. Sooner or later we have to stop the spread of ignorance and sit down and talk because this chap (Colin) isn’t going away. And that’s his mother. And those are his aunts and his grandmother. And I’m his grandmother, and Guy’s his father. And nothing is ever going to change that.”

Mother Was Upset

She isn’t sure why it happened, but she speculates that the mother was upset over losing custody and felt the child was being prejudiced against her, upset also that the boy’s father was at the time thinking about remarrying. “Child stealing is never (done) for the good of the child,” she said, “it’s always to get back at.”

There are emotional scars. “The woman, the informer, told me how Colin used to have nightmares, screaming tantrums, calling for his Dad, after they first took him,” Angelou said. “It’s got to do something. There’s some moodiness, some surliness. It’s inevitable.”

Grandmother Maya, dismayed that Colin had fallen behind in his reading, is buying children’s books a dozen at a time.

Guy Johnson has a new job, as personnel chief for the city of Oakland. He and the boy swim together, and play basketball on grandmother’s court in Winston-Salem. On his last visit, Johnson left his walking cane and didn’t realize it until he got back to California. “An incredible blessing,” Angelou said.

She reflected, “Our lives do strange things, my son and I. I wrote in ‘Gather Together in My Name’ about a woman taking him (when he was a baby). It only lasted a week but it’s just so bizarre. When I saw Guy standing at my door and he said, ‘She’s gone. She’s taken my son and gone,’ My God, I thought right back to that. There’s that feeling that somebody’s just taken off your arm suddenly, you know, no pain, it’s just gone.”

Maya Angelou hopes her story may help others, that “people who may be straddling the fence, thinking, ‘Well, I can take him and run, or take her and run,’ if they know how much pain they cause, might be encouraged not to do it. Once the child is gone, to play upon the mercy of the errant parent is rarely of any effect.

“I would say anything, do anything, to prevent a parent from taking off with a child. I wouldn’t like to see any family as injured as our family has been injured. And, you see, if my family’s injured, so is her family. It’s like a blight. The moral blight is on them and the emotional blight was on us. And for what? To what end?”