In her latest book, a collection of essays, acclaimed poet and memoirist Dr. Maya Angelou shares life lessons from her experiences. Dedicated to the daughter she never had but sees all around her, "Letter to My Daughter" reveals Angelou's path to living well and living a life with meaning. In this excerpt, she writes about losing her virginity, getting pregnant and the definition of “home.”
Chapter one: Home
I was born in St. Louis, Mo., but from the age of three I grew up in Stamps, Ark., 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, Ark., 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 earlobe.
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 ways the outer world are, 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.
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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.
Chapter three: Revelations
It had to be the days of Revelations. The days John the revelator prophesied. The earth shuddered as trains thundered up and down in its black belly. Private cars, taxis, buses, surface trains, trucks, delivery vans, cement mixers, delivery carts, bicycles, and skates occupied the air with honks, toots, roars, thuds, screams, and whistles, until the very air seemed thick and lumpy like bad gravy.
People from everywhere, speaking every known language had come to town to watch the end and the beginning of the world.
I wanted to forget about the enormity of the day so, I went to the Fillmore Street 5 & Dime store. It was an acre wide shop where dreams hung on plastic stands. I had walked up and down its aisles a thousand times over. I knew its seductive magic. From the nylon slips with cardboard tits to the cosmetic counter where lipsticks and nail polish were pink and red and green and blue fruits fallen from a rainbow tree.
That was the city, when I was sixteen and brand-new like daybreak.
The day was so important I could hardly breathe.
A boy who lived up the street from me had been asking me to be intimate with him. I had refused for months. He was not my boyfriend. We were not even dating.
It was during that time that I noticed my body’s betrayal. My voice became deep and husky, and my naked image in the mirror gave no intimations that it would ever become feminine and curvy.
I was already six feet tall and had no breasts. I thought maybe if I had sex my recalcitrant body would grow up and behave as it was supposed to behave.
That morning the boy had telephoned and I told him yes. He gave me an address and said he would meet me there at 8:00 o’clock. I said yes.
A friend had lent him his apartment. From the moment I saw him at the door I knew I had made the wrong choice. There were no endearments spoken, no warm caresses shared.
He showed me to a bedroom, where we both undressed. The fumbling engagement lasted fifteen minutes, and I had my clothes on and was at the front door.
I don’t remember if we said goodbye.
I do remember walking down the street, wondering was that all there was and how much I wanted a long soaking bath. I did get the bath and that was not all there was.
Nine months later, I had a beautiful baby boy. The birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life.
I learned to love my son without wanting to possess him and I learned how to teach him to teach himself.
Today, over forty years later, when I look at him and see the wonderful man he has become, the loving husband and father, the good poet and fine novelist, the responsible citizen and the world’s greatest son, I thank the Creator that he was given to me. The Revelation is that day, so long ago, was the greatest day of my life — Hallelujah!
Chapter four: Giving birth
My brother Bailey told me to keep my pregnancy a secret from my mother. He said she would take me out of school. I was very close to graduating. Bailey said I had to have a high school diploma before mother returned to San Francisco from the nightclub she and her husband owned in Nome, Alaska.
I received my diploma on VJ day which was also my step-father’s birthday. He had patted me on the shoulder that morning and said, “You are growing up and you are becoming a fine young woman.” I thought to myself I should, I am eight months and one week pregnant.
After a salutary dinner celebrating his birthday, my graduation, and a national victory, I left a note on his pillow saying, “Dad, I am sorry to bring disgrace to the family, but I have to tell you that I am pregnant.” I didn’t sleep that night.
I heard my dad go to his room about 3:00 a.m. When he didn’t knock on my door immediately, I puzzled over whether he had seen and read the note. There would be no sleep for me that night.
At 8:30 in the morning he spoke at my door. He said, “Baby, come down and have coffee with me, by the way — I got your note.”
The sound of him walking away was not nearly as loud as the sound of my heart racing. Downstairs at the table he said, “I’m going to call your mother. How far along are you?”
I said, “I have three weeks.”
He smiled. “I’m sure your mother will be here today.”
Video: Maya Angelou shares life lessons (on this page) Nervous and frightened are not words which even barely describe how I was feeling.
Before nightfall my pretty little mother walked into the house. She gave me a kiss then looked at me. “You’re more than any three weeks pregnant.”
I said, “No ma’am, I’m eight months and one week pregnant.”
She asked, “Who is the boy?” I told her.
She asked, “Do you love him?”
I said, “No.”
“Does he love you?”
I said, “No, he’s the only person with whom I had sex and we were together only one time.”
My mother said, “There is no reason to ruin three lives; our family is going to have a wonderful baby.”
She was a registered nurse so when I began labor she shaved me, powdered me and took me to the hospital. The doctor had not arrived. Mother introduced herself to the nurses and said as a nurse herself, she was going to help with the delivery.
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 has black hair.” I wondered what color she thought he might have.
When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him, wrapped him in a blanket and she brought him to me. “Here my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.”
My dad said when she returned home, she was so tired, she looked as if she had given birth to quintuplets.
She was so proud of her grandson and proud of me. I never had to spend one minute regretting giving birth to a child who had a devoted family led by a fearless, doting, and glorious grandmother. So I became proud of myself.
Excerpted from “Letter to My Daughter” by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 2008 by Maya Angelou. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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