“Be certain you do not die without doing something wonderful for humanity.”
“One must learn to love,” D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “and go through a good deal of suffering to get to it.” In these words lies the popular concept that love, and often our best selves, dwells on the far side of suffering, and to “earn” passage we must cross through purgatory and penance.
I’ve long believed that sentiment projects a false, causal relationship between complex concepts that might exist simultaneously, might be mutually exclusive, but, above all, are usually independent. Suffering exists from ignorance, apathy, or chance. Under the weight of it, we withdraw to nurture our wounded, deflated selves, or we endure, perhaps expanding to love others, enabling what Anna Deavere Smith commended as the rich, connected life of the “wide-awake.”
Maya Angelou (1928–2014), African-American singer, performer, poet, civil rights activist, and memorialist, was the kind of singular force who endured acute suffering and cruelty, yet repeatedly extended her generous self. In a series of essays to a very defined yet imagined daughter, Letter to My Daughter, Angelou admits:
“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.”
What we know of Angelou’s life we owe to her extraordinary memorial ability. She wrote seven autobiographies, the first—begun at James Baldwin’s urging—was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. Each focuses on a thematic cross section of her life, detailing her childhood raised by her grandmother after her mother’s boyfriend raped her; her young, single motherhood in San Francisco; her fervent Civil Rights activism in New York and later Africa; and, throughout, her successful career as a musician, singer, poet, and performer. Each is written in her uniquely intimate yet detached, unsentimental voice.
Letter—not directly a memoir, though it is autobiographical—cobbles together stories, poems, observations, and long-view opinions in a supportive, instinctive, and even maternal note. On charity and giving, Angelou reminds us about the power of words and gestures:
“I learned 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.”
In a particular story about hospitality and manners in Morocco, Angelou sips cockroach-ridden tea rather than offend the host. It reinforces the good graces and kind gestures, what she calls “joining in the feast.” Angelou also promotes the need for self-care, even if in a defensive posture, by telling a particular experience when she stood up for herself when diminished by a certain producer. As fitting a poet with devotion to the precise word, Angelou’s prose holds a tight grip on events and thus shows us the pulse of her thinking and motivation, her imperfections and triumphs.
Anyone who has read Angelou’s autobiographies, especially I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings and Heart of a Woman, will suspect that the true, sometimes conspicuous, sometimes hidden, heart of the narrative is motherhood. The motherhood from Angelou’s relationship to her mother, with her son, and, ultimately, to daughters unnamed, unspecified – you and I.
One of the most raw and poignant chapters is Birth Story in which Angelou lightly details her story of sex, pregnancy, loneliness, and ultimately seeking help from her mother, a registered nurse. In this moment of Angelou’s extreme vulnerability and need, her mother, whose relationship to Angelou was complicated by their years apart after the unthinkable rape committed by the mother’s boyfriend, supports her daughter fully, physically in the moment and emotionally for, it seems, the rest of her life.
“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.”
And similarly, the wonderfully bright experience when her mother turns to Angelou and says, almost causally, yet powerfully,
“‘Baby, I’ve been thinking and now I am sure. You are the greatest woman I have ever met.’ My mother was five feet four inches to my six-foot frame. I looked down at the pretty little woman, and her perfect makeup and diamond earrings … She continued, ‘You are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together.’”
What words of uplift, love, and comfort. Words that lifts the curtains and ushers hope into dark places. Words and actions that Maya Angelou credits to her immediate life-affirming realization: “Imagine, I might really become somebody Someday.” There is a courage, a passion and personal hope that Angelou extends to everyone who reads this book; one suspects, it emanates from these very intimate moments of great care and the expanded self of her mother.
During and following the recent political upheavals and distress in my own country and the continual changes that sweep the world, I sent copies of this book to the many people I love and cannot physically comfort. It felt like a maternal act. I wished to remind them of the love and the life force that emanate from people like Maya Angelou, one of the artists who “belong to everyone, everywhere, all the time.” I wished to extend myself, too, to join the feast and invite them to do similarly. Together, we can be somebody someday. It starts with caring.
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