Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

1 Feb
After recently reading Maya Angelou’s Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, I had a hankering for more of her. I almost feel like I have a personal relationship with her, like she’s my soul sister or surrogate grandmother. I’ve been reading and re-reading Maya Angelou’s words since I was a young teenager, and she just speaks to me. Because she’s a memoirist, she’s got a way of speaking to the secret parts of you – the parts that secretly think horrible, mean things, that make bad choices just because you feel insecure, that believe you can always change your life for the better. It’s a unique combination of comforting snark and optimistic love. She never says she’s got it all figured out, but she’s always dedicated to trying.

I picked this up in my Powell’s book raid post-Christmas with my gift card, and I have to say I don’t have the tasteful version I used for the image in this review. Mine has loud colors and is a little jarring, but it doesn’t matter; Angelou’s words inside are always smooth and calming. Letter to My Daughter is a collection of essays, with some poetry thrown in, aimed at guiding a woman during her various journeys through life. They’re a combination of advice, lessons learned, and anecdotes that illustrate how Angelou came to have such an accomplished and varied life. This quotation perfectly sums up the purpose of the book:

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.

As a devotee of Angelou’s, I was familiar with a couple of the essays in the book. “Mother’s Long View” I recognized from her cookbook Hallelujah! The Welcome Table – it’s an ode to her mother’s red beans and rice, as well as a meditation on how important her independence was to her as a young woman. I think Angelou excels when she’s using an anecdote from her life to expand on her point; for example, “Accident, Coincidence, or Answered Prayer” is a horrifying account of abuse she suffered at the hands of a boyfriend, and how a series of coincidences led to her survival. Her story of a trip to Morocco as part of the European tour of Porgy and Bess is a window into culture clash and being open to new experiences (and further cemented my hatred of raisins). “Senegal” is a retelling of a visit she made to a friend in Senegal, and how her pride and rush to judgement caused her an acre of embarrassment. I could read stories like these over and over again, letting her humor and dignity lead me to examine my own life.

Other parts weren’t as effective on me – I can’t say that I’ve ever really connected to poetry, and at other times her persuasion failed to work on me. In “Vulgarity” Angelou discusses some entertainers’ predilection to use crude or biting humor to get a laugh, and how she feels by participating in it, we are “brought low by sharing in the obscenity.” I happen to love crude humor and coarseness, and I feel like anytime I can enjoy a laugh that isn’t the result or cause of hurting somebody, it’s a good thing. I guess I have a much more lenient view of what is acceptable humor. Overall though, I connected with many, many more essays than not, and Letter to My Daughter is a fine addition to my Angelou oeuvre, something I’ll revisit to glean advice and solace from.

And because I can, here’s a short clip of her talking about parenting. I long for her to tell me I’m “quite every all of that.” She cracks me up.

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6 Responses to “Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou”

  1. mjspringett February 1, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Wonderful review, thanks MJ

  2. Rebecca February 1, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    I’ve never read Maya Angelou, and despite the hype, I never thought I was missing anything until I read your review. I can’t say I’m going to rush out and buy one of her books, but maybe I’ll find one in the library.

    Her phrase that her great-granddaughter was “quite every all of that” sounded like something my Big Mama would say.

    • Amanda February 2, 2012 at 7:43 am #

      I love your Big Mama! I’d love to hear your thoughts if you did try her – I don’t know, it’s so personal for me that it’s hard to step back. I just know how much her writing means to me. If you were going to start, I’d give the first volume of her autobiography a try, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

  3. nymeth February 2, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    I love the sound of this. What you say about her use of the personal to illustrate wider points reminds me of the book of essays by Audre Lorde I’ve just finished. I’ve never read Maya Angelou, but I need to remedy that.

    • Amanda February 2, 2012 at 7:46 am #

      Ooh, I’d never heard of Audre Lorde, but I’ve just done a little browsing of her Wikipedia page and she sounds fascinating. I’ll have to give her a try.

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