Monday 19 March 2018

Review: Letter to my Daughter by Maya Angelou

(Virago Press €14.99)

Yvonne Hogan

On her website, Maya Angelou describes herself as a "Global Renaissance Woman". Quite the claim, you might think, but one look at her CV quiets any notion that Dr Angelou has delusions of grandeur.

In her eight decades on this earth, she has been -- indeed, continues to be -- a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, a civil-rights activist working for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, a producer and director.

She was also a single mother and, for a time, a cook and a waitress. She has experienced discrimination and celebration, poverty and wealth, misery and happiness. She is a woman of substance and if she has something to say, millions of women around the world are only too happy to listen.

Maya Angelou was born in Stamp, Arkansas in 1928, a time before the civil rights movement had triumphed and the Deep South was still viciously racially segregated. Marguerite Annie Johnson, as she was then known, was reared by her strict grandmother, later living with her more permissive mother and growing up to become a jazz singer (when she changed her name to Maya Angelou) and much more besides.

Her fourteenth book, which is addressed to her 'daughters', is a collection of "lessons" that Angelou has learned throughout her life. In the preface she explains: "I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are black, white, Jewish and Muslim. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all."

Does this kind of rhetoric sound familiar? Does it maybe remind you of a certain billionaire talk-show host and media mogul who also sees herself as a bit of an earth mother? I'll give you a clue: her first name starts with O and ends with prah.

In fact, it is Ms Winfrey who brought Dr Angelou to the masses. The two are as tight as peas in a pod, their relationship transcending mere friendship, the younger woman referring to the elder as "mentor-mother-sister-friend".

Oprah credits the first volume of Angelou's five volume autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as the glue that holds the two women together. When introducing Angelou as a guest on her programme for the first time in 2000, Oprah said of the book: "With each page, her life seemed to mirror mine: In her early years she was raised by her grandmother in the South; as a young girl she was raped ... Meeting Maya on those pages was like meeting myself in full. For the first time, as a young black girl, my experience was validated."

However, Angelou's life lessons resonate far beyond the African-American woman, and speak to women everywhere.

In Letter, she gives us the old chestnuts like: "You may not control all the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them. ... if you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution."

Nothing new there, you might think. But there are also such gems as: "Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that there is a victim in the neighbourhood."

For those already familiar with Dr Angelou's writing, Letter is a nice addition to the body of work, but those exploring her for the first time would do better to start with the autobiographies.

In those five books lie everything a girl needs to know about life.

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