I must be honest in that I have only learned about Maya Angelou through Oprah Winfrey. Being close friends, Oprah speaks about the wisdom of Maya Angelou a lot in her book What I Know For Sure.
They say that reading a book is like having a conversation with the author. I, therefore, feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have a 'conversation' with the late Maya Angelou.
In her book Letter To My Daughter we see glimpses of the turbulent life that Angelou led; how she was brought up by her grandmother in segregated Arkansas, taken in at thirteen by her more worldly and less religious mother, and grew to be an awkward, six-foot-tall teenager whose first experience of loveless sex paradoxically left her with her greatest gift, a son.
Dedicated to the daughter she never had but sees all around her, Letter to My Daughter reveals Maya Angelou’s path to living well and living a life with meaning. Maya Angelou, the renowned poet, writer, performer, teacher and director, calls on each of us to do nothing short of "something wonderful for humanity" in her new autobiographical book.
In her introduction, Angelou explains that the title refers to her "thousands of daughters" of every colour, religion and persuasion - women "fat and thin, pretty and plain, educated and unlettered. I am talking to you all." The book written in her seventh decade, Anghelou shares her remarkable life experiences (some downright terrifying) and down-to-earth wisdom with humility as she calls on women to play a special role in leading the way to a better world.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
Your past does not have to dictate your future.
Use your past as a tool to a more abundant life
Aim to do wonderful things for humanity.
Where it all began for Maya.
Maya was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, from the age of three. She lived with her paternal grandmother, uncle and brother, Bailey. Growing up in Stamps was difficult and she constantly had to fight against surrendering, such as surrendering to grown-ups and the idea that being black made one inferior to whites. She felt she did not believe this mistrust, however. Maya believes that we continue to carry the dreams and fears from our homes; that home is merely a location where a child is the only inhabitant because everyone else comes and goes. Maya states that people remain children in a way: they learn how to be in the world but they always have that safe place - home - within themselves.
Maya goes on to speak about philanthropy and how some philanthropists are actually disconnected from the people who receive their goodwill. Maya prefers calling herself charitable. It is not just money, but good words and actions that have a huge effect on people. Highly influenced by her strong but demure grandmother, when Maya went to stay with her mother in California she saw the contrast between her home and this new environment immediately. Her mother wore make-up and curled her hair, which felt like a far cry from what Maya was used to back home. Her mother set her down and told her that she is different from Maya's grandmother (as Maya could see) but that as her mother, she will tell Maya what to do. She then asked Maya for a smile, and when Maya obliged her, her mother told her it was a beautiful smile. Maya had never been called beautiful and she learned in that moment that giving someone your smile was a gift.
Maya's life was about to get even tougher.
At the age of sixteen, Maya had been noticing the many changes occurring in her body, such as a deepening of her voice and her curvier figure. However, she was lacking when it came to her breasts and thought that having sex would make her body grow in the way it was meant to. So, she had sex with a boy who was interested in her, and it was a disappointing experience. However, it brought her a son.
Her brother said she shouldn't tell their mother about her pregnancy because he feared Maya would be pulled out of school, which meant she would forego the chance to get a high school diploma. After graduation, she told her family about her pregnancy. Since her mother was a registered nurse, she helped Maya during the delivery of her baby boy. Her mother was proud of her, Maya recalls, and that made her feel proud of herself.
When Maya met Mark, a boy who wanted to become a professional boxer but who had lost three of his fingers in an accident, she thought he was a good person. He spoke softly and was a gentle lover. But her feeling of security was short lived. After a few months with Mark, he accused Maya of being with another man. She laughed in response and he started to beat her until she passed out. When Maya regained consciousness, she had been placed in Mark's bed and was in tremendous pain.
Mark was crying and felt remorseful, and when he left her to go to the corner shop to buy her juice, Maya felt suicidal but started praying. After praying and falling in and out of consciousness for a while, Maya heard a banging on the door. It was her mother. Astoundingly, Mark found himself in the middle of a shop theft when he was buying the juice, with the thieves throwing their stolen purchases into his car!
The police arrested him and then he called a man by the name of Boyd Pucinelli from prison, the man that Maya's mother had spoken to when she couldn't find her daughter. Maya's mother ran to the building and rescued Maya. What a miracle!
Call it what it is...
Maya goes on to speak about how her mother would say that people don't really want the truth when they ask someone, ‘How are you?' But Maya insists it is better to tell the truth. We should be able to tell people what we really think, such as if a woman's hairstyle does nothing for her image. She then goes on to speak about vulgarity and how it is not entertaining, even though it is evident in the behaviour of some entertainers. Maya says that we need to have courage to say that there is no place for vulgarity. From vulgarity, Maya moves on to the subject of violence - specifically, rape.
She states that some experts, such as psychologists, claim rape is not a sexual act but one of power. Maya disagrees with this, claiming that she believes the violator's motivating factor is, in fact, of a sexual nature. She fears that people who try to shape our thinking patterns and laws are making the act of rape acceptable. If rape is about power, then the thinking goes that we must understand and possibly forgive it. Maya says that we need to speak of rape as what it is: a bone-crushing act of violence.
Independence is intoxicating and addictive. Maya speaks of being twenty-two years old and living in San Francisco with her five-year-old son. She was holding down two jobs as well as two rooms she was renting. She was lucky to have a kind landlady who babysat for her and gave her dinner. Although Maya's mother lived in a fourteen-room Victorian house and looked after Maya's son, Guy, twice a week, Maya only went to her house at their scheduled times. Her mother understood this and encouraged Maya's independent spirit. One day, after their lunch together, her mother complimented Maya, saying that she is the greatest woman she has ever met. Maya accepted her mother's wisdom, even though she didn't accept money or a lift from her. But this compliment was so much more! Maya felt that she could become somebody based on her mother's words.
Count your blessings to get out of dark moments.
After going away for a while to join the cast of 'Porgy and Bess', Maya returned home. She and Guy were living in her mother's sprawling house at that time but she soon became anxious. One morning when Guy entered the room and greeted her, Maya had a horrible thought of picking him up and jumping with him out the window. She was so alarmed by it, that she told him to get out of the house and wait there. She then called a taxi and upon leaving, she told Guy to go back in the house until her return home. She went to a psychiatric clinic to see a doctor. She cried when he asked her what was wrong and she felt so helpless. When she left, she went to her mentor and voice teacher, who gave her a drink and listened to her. She told him she thought about killing herself and her child. He said she had to write down her blessings. It was a remarkable life lesson because it taught her to be thankful, and that is what removed her negative feelings. It became a practice Maya has done her whole life.
Coincidence - or providence - makes a regular appearance in Maya's book. An example is when she is set to have dinner with someone her friends want her to meet, only to discover that there was a mistake - the woman arrives to dinner but thinks Maya is supposed to be someone else, a woman by the name of Louise Meriwether. However, Maya discovers this woman is actually a psychologist who can help her brother, Bailey, during his difficult time battling with drug addiction. The incident teaches Maya that a stranger can actually become a friend or someone who changes your life for the better.
Maya recalls when she first heard a Celia Cruz record, and how she had to study Spanish properly in order to understand it. She went to see her concerts and learnt how to be the kind of performer who brings everything onto the stage. Maya says that all great artists use the same resource: the human heart. This makes people more alike than different. Maya's love of music also touches on the issue of racism. She speaks about being American and the people who inspired her. One of these is Fannie Lou Hamer, who shone a light on the darkness of racism. It is music, Maya says, that helps to encourage the human heart. She mentions the song that was Fannie's favourite, that many people will know: 'This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine…'
The endings in life.
Maya had once been asked to participate in a ceremony to pay tribute to William Wyler, a prestigious Hollywood director. She speaks of how, at the event, she recalled being younger and going to see the pictures with her brother where they faced hostile stares from white people. The memories flood her, so when Maya has to say a speech, the only thing she has in her mouth is anger. She wants to say that she hates all the famous, rich and healthy people in the room, but instead she mumbles a few words and walks out. The incident made Maya remember to always acknowledge where she came from because it is thanks to her upbringing that she has been able to forge through challenges that life has given her.
This sense of self is important to Maya, again revealed when she is approached to have one of her short stories produced on television. She meets with the group and finds that the leader, a small woman with a high-pitched voice, is sarcastic and offensive. Before she gives Maya her offer, Maya refuses to work with her. Maya says that everyone must be available to come to their own defence when this is required.
'Letter to My Daughter' is not only about life, but also death. Maya recalls loved ones who have died and how difficult it is to deal with the finality of death. She says that when she feels anger over it, she tries to find out what she can learn from the departed loved ones. There are other endings in life, too, and Maya makes mention of her marriage and subsequent divorce to a man who was a builder with a business in northern California.
The gifts gained from her upbringing in the South bloom when she speaks of how difficult it was for black people to rise up the success ladder. She says many people returned to the South, in the paths of their ancestors, finding themselves happy without an explanation for it. Maya says that themes in the South can range from generous to cruel, but it is never indifferent. She says that in Arkansas, black people would walk around with an air that told others they might be liked or disliked, but their presence could never be denied.
Maya mentions people who find love in their later years and how they are sometimes looked down upon, such as in the case with an older woman marring a much younger man. But Maya says she commends lovers, who encourage her with their passions. The blessing of love they share is then passed on to other people.
When Maya was in San Francisco, she speaks of being sophisticated and an agnostic first. But then she realised if God loved her, then she was capable of achieving much in her life. Maya ends the book with a chapter called Keeping the Faith. She speaks of how she continues to be amazed in life and how for her being a Christian is a lifelong endeavour. She recalls how her grandmother would have the word of God within her. When Maya finds herself wondering if God exists, she looks up at the sky and can see her grandmother there singing a hymn from above. It makes her realise that 'faith is the evidence of things unseen.'
What I took from it.
Very similar to Oprah's 'What I know for sure'; both Oprah and Maya share a similar bad past and lived through it to become better people.
So many times in my life I was in a low phase of my life having the world on my shoulders, wondering how my life can turn so much for the worse. That 'worse' being very shallow compared to what Maya and Oprah went through the their pasts. To see how they have come out on the other side, gives one perspective and makes you grateful and more focused to become the best part of you, you possibly can.
I first thought the book would be geared specifically for women, and maybe it is meant too, but I don't care; I would suggest this book to anyone. The wisdom in this book is something that is just great and reading the book while listening to the narration by Maya Angelou made the experience so much more rewarding. I felt like I was sitting at the feet of Maya, soaking in wisdom and even became quite emotional in public when I read the part of the book where she was abused by her boyfriend.
My only criticism, is that towards the end, the stories became a bit impersonal, and seemed as if they were added as an afterthought. Didn't seem to fit with the idea of writing personal letters to a daughter. It sounded more like recycled speeches presented at other venues and hastily added towards the end of the book.
It did make me pick up a pen and paper and start writing to my own daughter. Watch this space.