Letter to My Daughter
by Maya Angelou
Random House / 176 pages / $25
Larger than life in a quintessentially American way, Maya Angelou has taken self-reinvention to a level that other American writing legends, like Hemingway, only wished for.
Reading her latest collection of vignettes and extrapolations from her incredibly full and vivid life, Letter to My Daughter, one cannot help but be struck by how much Angelou has overcome and how far she has come. The too-tall girl with the husky man's voice from St. Louis became a mother at 16, an international singer and dancer in her 20s, a teacher in her 30s, a writer of best-selling memoirs and poetry in her 40s and beyond, mentor to one of the most influential women in America if not the world (Oprah Winfrey), proud holder of an honorary doctorate and the first African-American poet to read at an inauguration of a president (Bill Clinton).
Angelou's voice is reminiscent of populist poets like Walt Whitman. These are tales of a traveling life and what is learned on the way, and Angelou has quite literally been on the road, from Arkansas to Senegal. She's drunk coffee she thought peppered with insects (they turned out to be raisins but made her sick for a month in Morocco), withstood a beating from a suitor and worked hand-in-hand with Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement.
Angelou's is a life so rich and compelling that it's difficult to imagine how as a young woman of color in the 1940s and 1950s - Angelou is now 80 - she could have broken so many barriers, lived through such harrowing and complex experiences and come away not emotionally shattered or seared with bitterness, but instead filled with life and generosity and a deep yearning to pass her story on to other young women.
In reading Angelou, the adjectives tend to flow. Notes from the publisher refer to Angelou's "erudite prose," but that's inaccurate. Angelou's prose is not erudite - nor elitist, nor intellectualizing. Rather her prose is colloquial and from the heart. These pieces read like short stories or tales heard at the knee of a grandmother or an older aunt. They have the quality of oral history: raw and poetic and repetitive and earnest and painful and dramatic and funny. Angelou is not trying to impart erudition - she's trying to breathe life into any young (or older) woman who feels life might just pass her by simply because of her gender or seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Angelou has only one child, a son, born after a loveless encounter with a boy right after she moved to San Francisco as a teenager to live with her mother, herself a larger-than-life character. Angelou begins with this part of her life and leads to her struggles to raise her son alone and her fears that a young black boy without a father would be swallowed up and turned into something unrecognizable. At one point, Angelou returns from a European tour of Porgy and Bess and almost has herself committed; she thinks she might kill herself and her 8-year-old because she feels she is not enough for him or for herself.
Angelou takes on much larger issues than her own life in Letter to My Daughter, which she wrote to the daughters she never had. Some of what she imparts goes against conventional wisdom: She asserts that we diminish the ugliness and horror of rape when we say that it is a crime only of power and not of sexual predation. This intellectualizing and psychologizing, Angelou - herself a survivor of rape - insists, gets rapists off the hook, making them victims rather than victimizers. She discusses the vulgar sexuality of rape in a way that reminds the reader just what rape does to its victims.
Angelou has no patience for vulgarity, cheating or lies. She's an inveterate truth-teller, and Letter to My Daughter, her first collection in 10 years, tells truths few really want to hear: that honesty is the best policy or that women like Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer are more than just random historical names, but real women who suffered and struggled and yet somehow shone "a light directly on the gloom of ignorance" and "darkness of racism."
Letter to My Daughter is no self-help tome of pop-psychologizing. It is a fluid narrative of a life - and many other lives - lived by a woman of grace and strength and incomparable will to survive. The kernels of insight and, yes, wisdom in this small volume will stay with the reader for a long time. It's a book to give to one's daughter, mother, son or father, but definitely one to be read and savored.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the award-winning history, "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a novel about Trotsky in Mexico.
The birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life. I learned to love my son without wanting to possess him and I learned how to teach him to teach himself.