Recently published September 23, 2008.
Around 7:30 last night, my husband and I were curled up on the couch at his brother’s house. We were babysitting, and we’d just gotten three kids (ages 9, 7, and 4) off to bed. Their 4-month-old puppy was doing his best to behave, and I just felt so peaceful and content. It was the perfect mood and moment for Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter.
Letter to My Daughter is a collection of 28 short essays (and a few poems) on life, faith, motherhood, kindness, and what it means to be human. Angelou tells us in the introduction:
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.
And we are so fortunate to receive her offering. Though many of the essays are written to and about women and issues women face, this collection and the wisdom Angelou offers are universally appealing and applicable. This is another of those books I think should be required reading for life. The pieces are short and pithy, and Angelou says it like no one else can. When she talks, I want to pay attention.
On whether or not you really can’t go home again, she remarks:
I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the ear lobe.
Isn’t that lovely and perfect?
Many of the pieces share moments from Dr. Angelou’s life that are less than glamorous. She writes of losing her virginity in an awkward, exploitative situation, of being abused and wrongly accused by an angry boyfriend, and of committing embarrassing social faux pas. Angelou is human and she knows it. She sees the beauty in it and is willing to open up to us and ask us to love her, warts and all, and to encourage us to do the same in our personal relationships.
She nudges us to gets past the niceties and focus on the importance of honesty and truthtelling:
I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all that one knows, but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.
Angelou criticizes popular culture and our acceptance and glorification of vulgarity and obscenity. She calls us to be people of virtue, people of substance, and to require the same from our elected officials.
How have we come so late and lonely to this place? When did we relinquish our desire for a high moral ground to those who clutter our national landscape with vulgar accusations and gross speculations?
…We must insist that the men and women who expect to lead us recognize the true desires of those who are being led.
…Politicians must be told if they continue to sink into the mud of obscenity, they will proceed alone.
What better message could we send our leaders,especially as the election quickly approaches and we find ourselves wading through the murky waters of political spin and doublespeak?
These are just a few small examples of the wonderful words of wisdom and insight Angelou offers in Letter to My Daughter. At just 166 pages, this small volume is page-for-page one of the most valuable books I’ve read in a very long time and is the perfect selection for a rainy afternoon. Angelou has lived a long and interesting life, and I’m so grateful that she’s chosen to continue sharing her experiences with us. I hope this won’t be the last time.
Letter to My Daughter is also part of my celebration of Banned Books Week, as Angelou’s first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the ALA’s most frequently challenged books. And that’s because Maya Angelou is not afraid to expose and discuss the parts of life that are ugly and messy and unpleasant. But she does not revel in them—she pulls herself up, bringing us along with her, and uses the moment as motivation to move on and continue rising.
Letter to My Daughter gets a well-deserved 5 out of 5.
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