Maya Angelou

Letter to My Daughter

“I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first.”

“How can I tell you Everything in my Heart?” asked illustrator Maira Kalman, heaving out her curious, observational mind into pictures and words. I imagine for Maya Angelou it would be a task of unloading things pressed upon her heart.

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014), a poet, activist, and writer, penned Letter to My Daughter in 2008 as a series of letters to the collective daughters she’s nurtured and inspired throughout her life.

This letter has taken an extraordinary time getting itself together. I have all along known that I wanted to tell you directly of some lessons I have learned and under what conditions I have learned them. My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still.

Written when Angelou was eighty, and full of love and forgiveness, it is easy to imagine the intended audience of Letter to My Daughter is actually Angelou’s own young self—so perfectly sketched in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A youth caught in the “tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power.”1

From this particular era of life that summons grace and forgiveness, Angelou writes:

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

Photo of Maya Angelou circa 1970, featured in various books in The Examined Life Library.
Maya Angelou circa 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

In clear, precise, and direct prose, Angelou extends her deep, generous self to every reader of this book. She mines the chasm of memory to speak on violence, loss, home, and truth.

There are many anecdotes, such as when she met singer Celia Cruz and the star influenced Angelou’s own singing with her weighty presence. Angelou also writes about her mother, a woman of indomitable love and force who so greatly influenced young Maya.

She crawled up on the delivery table with me and had me bend my legs. She put her shoulder against my knee and told me dirty stories. When the pains came she told me the punch line of the stories, and as I laughed, she told me, ‘Bear down.’

When the baby started coming, my little mother jumped off the table, and seeing him emerge she shouted, ‘Here he comes and he had black hair.’

When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket, and she brought him to me. ‘Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.’

It was refreshing—liberating even—to read Angelou’s thoughts on violence:

I am never proud to participate in violence, yet I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves, that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.

Few people speak coherently and personally of humankind’s capacity for anger and violence. Thresholds we all have.2

Above all, it is an exceptional pleasure to read Angelou’s insights into compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. I return to this book a few times a year and pretend it’s addressed to me.

Within three months of teaching, I had an enormous revelation; I realized I was not a writer who teachers, but a teacher who writes.3

One of Angelou’s “imagined daughters” is writer and thespian Anna Deavere Smith, who reached deep into her own generous and wise spirit to produce advice on creative life. It is a wonderful corollary to Letter to My Daughter.

You ask about fear. I take fear seriously. […] First of all, don’t deny fear. It’s a feeling like all feelings. Sometimes it is there as a warning. Sometimes you don’t need the warning and sometimes you do. Work through the fear until your body—or your psyche—gets a better idea of what you can do, until it gets a better idea that you don’t need the warning.

From Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist

Hearts and cards from Take Heart organization.
“All great artists draw from the same resources: the human heart, which tells us all that we are more alike than we are unalike” wrote Angelou. Spreading “ripples of kindness” throughout England, the Take Heart organization crochets pocket-sized hearts and spreads them about with notes saying “You are not alone.” Learn more.
“There are certain artists who belong to all people, everywhere, all the time,” Angelou wrote of performer Celia Cruz. Exactly that, exactly you, Maya.
Maya Angelou © The Examined Life