Authors: Maya Angelou
My thanks to some women who mothered me
through dark and bright days,
My thanks to one woman who allows me
to be a daughter to her, even today,
Dr. Dorothy Height
My thanks to women not born to me but who allow me
to mother them,
Rosa Johnson Butler
LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER
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. I have only included here events and lessons which I have found useful. I have not told how I have used the solutions, knowing that you are intelligent and creative and resourceful and you will use them as you see fit.
You will find in this book accounts of growing up, unexpected emergencies, a few poems, some light stories to make you laugh and some to make you meditate.
There have been people in my life who meant me well, taught me valuable lessons, and others who have meant me ill and, have given me ample notification that my world is not meant to be all peaches and cream.
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.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.
Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.
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.
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but from the age of three I grew up in Stamps, Arkansas, with my paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and my father’s brother, Uncle Willie, and my only sibling, my brother Bailey.
At thirteen I joined my mother in San Francisco. Later I studied in New York City. Throughout the years I have lived in Paris, Cairo, West Africa, and all over the United States.
Those are facts, but facts, to a child, are merely words to memorize, “My name is Johnny Thomas. My address is 220 Center Street.” All facts, which have little to do with the child’s truth.
My real growing up world, in Stamps, was a continual struggle against a condition of surrender. Surrender first to the grown-up human beings who I saw every day, all black and all very, very large. Then submission to the idea that black people were inferior to white people, who I saw rarely.
Without knowing why exactly, I did not believe that I was inferior to anyone except maybe my brother. I knew I was smart, but I also knew that Bailey was smarter, maybe because he reminded me often and even suggested that maybe he was the smartest person in the world. He came to that decision when he was nine years old.
The South, in general, and Stamps, Arkansas, in particular had had hundreds of years’ experience in demoting even large adult blacks to psychological dwarfs. Poor white children had the license to address lauded and older blacks by their first names or by any names they could create.
Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America’s great novel that “You Can’t Go Home Again.” I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. 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 ones eyes and possibly in the gristle of the ear lobe.
Home is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant. Parents, siblings, and neighbors, are mysterious apparitions, who come, go, and do strange unfathomable things in and around the child, the region’s only enfranchised citizen.
Geography, as such, has little meaning to the child observer. If one grows up in the Southwest, the desert and open skies are natural. New York, with the elevators and subway rumble and millions of people, and Southeast Florida with its palm trees and sun and beaches are to the children of those regions the way the outer world is, has been, and will always be. Since the child cannot control that environment, she has to find her own place, a region where only she lives and no one else can enter.
I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.
We may act sophisticated and worldly but I believe we feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home, a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.
To write about giving to a person who is naturally generous reminds me of a preacher passionately preaching to the already committed choir. I am encouraged to write on because I remember that from time to time, the choir does need to be uplifted and thanked for its commitment. Those voices need to be encouraged to sing again and again, with even more emotion.
Each single American giver keeps alive the American Cancer Society, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Sickle Cell Anemia, American Jewish Society, NAACP, and the Urban League. The list continues to include church foundations, synagogue programs, Muslim Temple associations, Buddhist shrines, groups, officials, and city and social clubs. However, the largest sums of money come from philanthropists.
The word philanthropy was taken from the two Greek words,
—lover of; and
—mankind. So, philanthropists are lovers of humanity. They build imposing edifices for people to work in and to play in. They give huge sums of money to support organizations which offer better health and education to the society. They are the principal patrons of the arts.
The mention of philanthropy elicits smiles, followed by the sensation of receiving unexpected good fortune from a generous but faceless source.
There are those who would like to see themselves as philanthropists. Philanthropists often are represented by committees and delegations. They are disconnected from the recipients of their generosity. I am not a member of that gathering. Rather I like to think of myself as charitable. The charitable say in effect, “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.
My paternal grandmother who raised me had a remarkable influence on how I saw the world and how I reckoned my place in it. She was the picture of dignity. She spoke softly and walked slowly, with her hands behind her back, fingers laced together. I imitated her so successfully that neighbors called me her shadow.
“Sister Henderson, I see you got your shadow with you again.”
Grandmother would look at me and smile. “Well, I guess you’re right. If I stop, she stops. If I go, she goes.”
When I was thirteen, my grandmother took me back to California to join my mother, and she returned immediately to Arkansas. The California house was a world away from that little home in which I grew up in Arkansas. My mother wore her straight hair in a severe stylish bob. My grandmother didn’t believe in hot curling women’s hair, so I had grown up with a braided natural. Grandmother turned our radio on to listen to the news, religious music,
The Lone Ranger.
In California my mother wore lipstick and rouge and played loud blues and jazz music on a record player. Her house was full of people who laughed a lot and talked loudly. I definitely did not belong. I walked around in that worldly atmosphere, with my hands clasped behind my back, my hair pulled back in a tight braid, humming a Christian song.
My mother watched me for about two weeks. Then we had what was to become familiar as, “a sit down talk to.”
She said, “Maya, you disapprove of me because I am not like your grandmother. That’s true. I am not. But I am your mother and I am working some part of my anatomy off to buy you good clothes and give you well-prepared food and keep this roof over your head. When you go to school, the teacher will smile at you and you will smile back. Other students you don’t even know will smile and you will smile. But on the other hand, I am your mother. I tell you what I want you to do. If you can force one smile on your face for strangers, do it for me. I promise you I will appreciate it.”
She put her hand on my cheek and smiled. “Come on, baby, smile for mother. Come on.”
She made a funny face and against my wishes, I smiled. She kissed me on the lips and started to cry.
“That’s the first time I have seen you smile. It is a beautiful smile, Mother’s beautiful daughter can smile.”
I had never been called beautiful and no one in my memory had ever called me daughter.
That day, I learned that I could be a giver by simply bringing a smile to another person. The ensuing years have taught me that a kind word, a vote of support is a charitable gift. I can move over and make another place for someone. I can turn my music up if it pleases, or down if it is annoying.
I may never be known as a philanthropist, but I certainly am a lover of mankind, and I will give freely of my resources.
I am happy to describe myself as charitable.