March 19 — 4:22 pm, 2019

Maya Angelou and the mother-daughter relationship

Rachel Slaughter

Psychologists will never stop studying the mother-daughter relationship. Like an onion, it features many fine layers that can be peeled to release a sharp tang. Often characterized by psychologists as the most significant relationship a woman will ever have, it is detailed ad nauseam in movies, songs, and books.

It’s not uncommon for a woman to spend countless hours with a therapist or confidant trying to unravel how this relationship shaped the woman she has become. In an article in Psychology Today, author Peg Streep details what she describes as “eight toxic patterns” in mother-daughter relationships. Often described as combative or unhealthy, these patterns are not the sentiments of Mother’s Day cards.

Margarita Tartakovsky, in an article in Psych Central, on the other hand, offers several ways that moms and daughters can extend the olive branch to each other.

Poet and author Maya Angelou explored the mother-daughter relationship in her book of essays called Letter to My Daughter (Random House, 2008). She wrote them for the daughter she never had. This book will be the focus of this month’s column.

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, the analysis includes Quality of writing, Imaginative plot, a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s theme and premise.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, born in 1928 in St. Louis, spent a lot of her childhood with her paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in a tiny town called Stamps, Arkansas. Angelou, who died in 2014, spent her childhood in poverty. But she always set her sights beyond her personal circumstances. She rose to fame as a civil rights activist, memoirist, singer, and poet. Angelou is most famous for her captivating and inspirational poems, which endeared her to many influential people, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who asked Angelou to join him at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1959. King, who served as president of the SCLC while Ralph Abernathy was the program director, asked Angelou to serve as the northern coordinator.

Long after her time with King, Angelou’s civil rights work and poetic acumen continued to dazzle influential people, including residents of the White House. In 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed Angelou to the Bicentennial Commission to prepare for the 200th birthday of the United States. President Jimmy Carter, in turn, named Angelou to the Commission for International Woman of the Year.

Some people would agree that Angelou seemed to become a household name when President Bill Clinton asked her to write and deliver a poem at his 1993 inauguration. Presenting “On the Pulse of Morning,” Angelou was the second person in history to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. Nearly two decades later, in 2010, President Barack Obama gave Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou’s incredible and influential body of work included I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1970. Angelou was also known to be a confidant of Oprah Winfrey.

Quality: In Letter to My Daughter, Angelou details her life as a young mother to a daughter she never had. A collection of essays, the book speaks to the young women whom Angelou encountered in her travels. An incredible storyteller, Angelou intertwines autobiographical tidbits with lectures to her “daughter” that, if read aloud, sound like a day at the spa with her. Angelou offers stark advice on a host of subjects, including hair. She writes, “That raggedy hairstyle may be trendy, but it is also unattractive.”

Universal theme: In this collection of essays about mother-daughter relationships, Angelou reveals a lot of herself. A glimpse into her tumultuous past, she provides her readers with the gory details of her growing pains stemming from her life in Arkansas.

Imaginative plot: Through eloquent descriptions of her life experiences, Angelou offers her readers hard truths about “adulting,” including trying desperately to navigate a complicated sexual relationship with a lover. The compromised relationship produced Guy Bailey Johnson.

Lesson plan: In many of the essays, Angelou includes the names of history-makers and famous events. These elements make the book a perfect catalyst for meaty discussions in any history class.

Talking points: Angelou’s essays are rich with descriptions of how mother-daughter relationships can become complicated with feelings of love, jealousy, and bitterness.

  1. In her book A Letter to My Daughter, Angelou writes “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” How do these words relate to you? How do they relate to the #MeToo movement?
  2. “I may never be known as a philanthropist, but I certainly am a lover of mankind, and I will give freely of my resource.”  How does this quote from A Letter to My Daughter define Angelou’s mark on history?
  3. “One person, with good purpose, can constitute the majority.” In what ways can this quote speak to a budding civil rights activist?

Rachel Slaughter, a doctoral candidate at Widener University, is working on her dissertation about multicultural literacy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to






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