Mother Maya embraces her girls with tough love, wit and wisdom
Blending self-help, faith and the fruits of her experience, Frieda Klotz finds Angelou's essays have unique appeal
Published 17/01/2010 | 05:00
Letter to my Daughter
Virago Press, €14.99
In 1993 Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration, the first African-American poet to have this honour. She started reading slowly, then began almost to chant, as she spoke about:
... the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher."
A very young-looking Bill Clinton sat behind her, smiling. That was 17 years ago, and Angelou was already 64.
Letter to My Daughter is Angelou's 14th book. In it Angelou, now 81, talks of the experiences she's had in the course of her long life, and she dispenses advice to readers. The book is addressed to the daughter she never had, and it has 28 brief sections -- some are essays, some are memoirs, some are poems, and several have the feeling of whimsical thoughts jotted down on a page. Even if you don't like receiving advice, Angelou's breadth of experience through the last century's historical moments gives this book a unique appeal.
Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928 in Clinton's home state of Arkansas, Angelou grew up in the American South before blacks had gained civil rights (Maya Angelou was a name she later took as a cabaret artist). She lived first with her grandmother, before moving in with her less religious mother. As an African-American girl in the racially segregated South, the odds were stacked against her, but she grew up to become a jazz singer, a poet, an actress, and a political activist who worked for both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Her creative output is impressive. She has directed several films and has written six memoirs. Her website says she is "a global renaissance woman" -- a large assertion, but one you can hardly contest.
Letter to My Daughter opens with typical inclusivity: "Dear Daughter ... I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are black and white, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all. Here is my offering to you."
In the book, Angelou has the stance of someone who has lived a lot and made mistakes. You get a feeling that she's in favour of tough love. "Never whine," she says in the preface. "Whining let's a brute know that a victim is in the neighbourhood."
The early parts of the book take the form of a memoir. In chapter 3, Revelations, she recalls her first sexual experience. Six feet tall at 16 years old, she thought if she slept with a boy who was pestering her, she'd become more feminine. They went briefly to a friend's apartment. After 15 minutes of fumbling, it was over and she left. But she was pregnant. She waited for eight months before telling her parents. Her son Guy is now a poet and novelist himself. Looking back, she says "the Revelation is that day, so long ago, was the greatest day of my life --Hallelujah!"
Her adventures are often shocking. A jealous boyfriend raped her a few years later and he beat her up so badly that her mother fainted when she saw her. Angelou was simply grateful that she was found (by chance) before he killed her -- "I believe my prayers were answered."
She also has a few funny, awkward tales. She visited Morocco once, and locals gave her a drink filled with what looked like cockroaches. She didn't want to seem rude, so she swallowed the concoction. She was sick for a month. Much later, she read that certain African tribes honour guests by giving them coffee -- and they put three to five precious raisins in the cup. After this experience, Angelou decided she would be more open to other cultures and always share food with strangers, however odd the dish seemed.
Angelou touches here on both family problems, such as her brother's struggles with heroin; and on wider political issues, including the black experience in America. She writes about the Harlem Renaissance movement and the way its poets expressed and celebrated their blackness in a colonial language, inspiring later writers to do the same. She herself was encouraged by the Harlem Writers Guild when she first moved to New York in the Fifties. All great artists, she says, "draw from the same resource: the human heart".
These essays are snippets, short portraits of a moment or thought. They are not meant to be detailed analyses, and the letter form absolves them of that. Many of them end with a line of advice from Angelou, or a note about how an experience helped her to develop. The tone really is that of a mother writing a letter to a wayward daughter, alternately scolding, admonishing, and reassuring. Although she recounts some exciting anecdotes, Angelou skips over the more political parts of her life, and those who want to learn more about her should begin with her famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Towards the end of Letter to My Daughter, Angelou remembers the grandmother who raised her, a "tall, cinnamon-coloured woman with a deep soft voice," who looked after her disabled adult son and two grandchildren in the South during the Depression. At this stage, Angelou is a grandmother herself, but she is still vibrant and cheerful -- a poem at the end of the book even deals with erotic love.
Letter to My Daughter is a blend of self-help, wisdom and Christian belief. It's also a historical personal document by a woman who observed and lived through some of the most world-changing social events of the 20th Century.
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