A quick review of Maya Angelou’s Letter to my Daughter, a collection of essays on womanhood.
Who I think would value this book most:
- Women over the age of 18, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background
- Parents of young women
- Anyone who wants to learn about the life of poet Maya Angelou
Why you should read this book:
This book is a quick read, which makes it a good book to read if you need to fill gaps in your day. Every chapter is a short, poignant, powerful story from Angelou’s life that takes 3-5 minutes to read. Her anecdotes also acknowledge issues that women and men struggle with today. Angelou learns from mistakes she makes when traveling abroad. She writes about mediating race conversations between black and white college students at Wake Forest University. She also talks about how she overcame mental health problems and navigated her relationship with her mother.
If I had a daughter, I’d give her this book because Angelou’s voice was the perfect combination of compassion and strength. It was the kind of voice I could see someone listening to and trusting because she doesn’t minimize anyone. Nor does she sound critical or preachy. Instead, she expresses strong opinions and uses humor, grace, and clarity to explain them.
I also appreciated that Angelou’s book was to all women, regardless of race or creed:
“You are Black and White,” she wrote, “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.”
Who is Maya Angelou?
Dr. Maya Angelou was an artist with a multi-faceted career and life. She wrote poetry, memoirs, and essays, and sang and danced professionally. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry, a Tony for her spoken word performance, and three Grammys. She was also an outspoken advocate for African American rights and collaborated with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
In 2010, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is one of the highest civilian awards in the United States.
Why the book is called Letter to my Daughter:
Angelou never had a daughter, so she instead wrote this book for those who saw her as a mother figure. In an interview with Patricia Cohen, previously a cultural reporter for the New York Times, Angelou said she wrote the book for women because, “A woman liberates a woman. That’s probably the greatest gift of a mother to a daughter.”
My 4 Takeaways
- Charity comes in many different forms. When Angelou was 13, she moved from her grandmother to her mother’s house. She must have experienced shock and resentment at the transition because she wouldn’t smile for the first two weeks she was there. Her mother pulled her aside one day and asked her to smile. Angelou smiled, even though she didn’t mean it, and her mother was overjoyed. Angelou discovered a new way to be charitable: “‘I seem to have more than I need and you seem to have less than you need. I would like to share my excess with you.’ Fine, if my excess is tangible, money or goods, and fine if not, for I learned that to be charitable with gestures and words can bring enormous joy and repair injured feelings.” Philanthropy doesn’t always have to be a monetary gift. You can also give time, consideration, or kind words to make someone’s day.
- Be honest, but avoid being “brutally frank”. I used to go to a lot of open mics. I heard sexist jokes, mental health jokes, and weight jokes. Many made me groan out of sheer pain. They weren’t funny. They were painful to the listener and the speaker. Angelou admits that honesty is liberating, but she also says there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Being honest, which I think is generally helpful, appreciated, and even funny, is different from being “brutally frank,” which can be jarring and hurtful to the speaker or listener. I consider self-deprecation to be an example of “brutal frankness”. It may not hurt others, but it still hurts someone: you.
- Participate in the national dialogue. Angelou dedicates an entire chapter to her poem, “Commencement Address”. It’s written as if you’ve recently graduated from college, but you could return to the poem at any point. I took this as Angelou’s way of saying that all readers should never stop questioning how to make the world a better place. One passage says, “Look beyond your tasseled caps / And you will see injustice. / At the end of your fingertips / You will find cruelties, / Irrational hate, bedrock sorrow / And terrifying loneliness. / There is your work.” Opportunities for this kind of “work” can be big and little, but they are everywhere.
- Know what you can control. Angelou talks about this difference in loving and “being in love” with your child. She says that when you love your child, you recognize that they have their own life. But, when you’re “in love” with your child you project your dreams and identity onto them. I don’t think we do this only with kids. I think we do this with anything we are passionate about. For example, I wanted one of my past partners to be someone who would collaborate with me on entrepreneurial projects. I sent him book and video recommendations, and would try to give him advice on his work. I fed my image of us working together and missed signs from reality that he didn’t buy into that idea. We project our hopes and dreams onto others all the time. I think Angelou wants us to recognize when it disconnects us from reality.
If the book had a Call to Action…
“I have dared to try many things,” Angelou says, “sometimes trembling, but daring, still.”
Without a doubt, I think Angelou’s CTA would be to find new and creative ways to exercise our courage everyday.
Ways I plan to exercise my courage in the next few days:
- Bake a cake with my Dad this weekend (we’ve mostly stuck to cookies)–DONE!
- Volunteer for Table Topics at Toastmasters next Tuesday–TO DO!
- Write a new type of blog post–DONE! Coming out on Thursday!
- Share this or another post on Facebook–TO DO!
*Last updated on Monday, March 19, 2019