When Maya Angelou was Marguerite Johnson

When Maya Angelou died last week, I read the obituaries, marveling once again at the enormous spectrum of her talents and achievements.

But none of them put their finger on the characteristic that most powerfully shaped her life, from my perspective. When we worked together on her letter to her younger self for What I Know Now, the predominant trait that emerged was Maya’s indomitable will. Did you know that her mother, Lady Vivian Baxter, was an accomplished businesswoman who had live-in help at home when Maya was a teenager? That narrative detail doesn’t fit neatly with a pivotal moment in Maya’s 17-year-old life: she was pregnant when she graduated from high school and decided to leave home with her baby two months after he was born.

Why would she leave the comfort of her mother’s home for a room in a boarding house? More than anything else, Maya wanted to do things her way. And nothing was going prevent her. Her mother’s reaction speaks volumes about Maya’s independent drive.

Here’s the letter we created, written to herself at 17:

Dear Marguerite,

      You’re itching to be on your own. You don’t want anybody telling you what time you have to be in at night or how to raise your baby. You’re going to leave your mother’s big comfortable house and she won’t stop you, because she knows you too well.

But listen to what she says:

When you walk out of my door, don’t let anybody raise you—you’ve been raised.

You know right from wrong.

In every relationship you make, you’ll have to show readiness to adjust and make adaptions.

Remember you can always come home.

      You will go home again when the world knocks you down—or when you fall down in full view of the world. But only for two or three weeks at a time. Your mother will pamper you and feed you your favorite meal of red beans and rice. You’ll make a practice of going home so she can liberate you again—one of the greatest gifts, along with nurturing your courage, that she will give you.

     Be courageous but not foolhardy.

Walk proud as you are,