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 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.
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, philo—lover of; and anthro—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, Gang Busters, and The Lone Ranger. In California my mother wore lipstick and rouge and played loud blues music and jazz 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.
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!
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.”
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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou. Copyright © 2008 by Maya Angelou. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.