Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014), a poet, activist and writer penned Letter to My Daughter in 2008 as a series of letters to an imagined daughter, or rather, the collective daughters she’s cultivated over time.
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 imagines the intended audience is actually Angelou’s own young self—so perfectly sketched in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings almost fifty years earlier. A young person caught in the “tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate, and Black lack of power.”
Facing the particular facade of life that reflects 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.
In clear, precise, and direct prose, Angelou extends her deep, generous self to every reader of this book. She mines deep into 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, who had even more presence. I feel those passages deeply.
Many times Angelou deals openly with her capacity for violence and anger (and thus, all of our capacities). At injustices large and small. And in these moments, there is such a forceful retrieval of truth, so deep in herself, truth of vision and courage to do what is right.
Of violence she wrote:
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.
It was refreshing – liberating even – to read this. So very few people speak coherently and personally of humankind’s capacity for anger and violence. John Cleese, responsible for one of the most successful “angry” characters of all time, Basil Fawlty, wrote about it in his autobiography. Those thresholds are within all of us. We are comfortable exercising them, but not understanding them.
Above all, it is an exceptional pleasure to read Angelou’s insights into compassion, kindness and forgiveness, she is honest and open. I return to this book a few times a year, pretend it’s addressed to me.
One of Angelous’ “imagined daughters” is writer and thespian Anna Deavere Smith who earlier in her career reached deep into her own generous and wise spirit to produce the similar, but not at all identical, advice on creative life in Letters to a Young Artist. I return to this book frequently, too.
“There are certain artists who belong to all people, everywhere, all the time.” Angelou wrote of performer Celia Cruz. Exactly that, exactly you, Maya.