Writer, activist, entertainer and teacher Maya Angelou was a beloved figure and household name, a rarity for a female African American artist who confronted controversial topics in public. She spoke about race, violence, gender and Black history in her autobiographies, poems and speeches.
Angelou is perhaps best-known for her 1969 memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," which recounts her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, and in San Francisco. Dealing with themes of racism, identity and sexual violence, the book won the hearts of literary critics and everyday readers alike and has been reprinted numerous times. Yet, it is often banned from schools for its depictions of rape and supposed "anti-white messaging."
The success of that first memoir spurred Angelou to write six more autobiographies, in addition to three books of essays, several books of poetry, plays, screenplays and even two cookbooks. She earned dozens of honorary degrees; a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a legacy that has endured in class curricula, contemporary Black feminist writers, and even internet memes. Angelou's words are so resonant that you can't throw a stone in U.S. media without hitting one of the late author's quotes.
Dr. Linda Wagner-Martin, author of the books "Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit" and "The Life of the Author: Maya Angelou," notes that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson quoted Angelou at the White House after her recent Supreme Court confirmation. "I am the dream and the hope of the slave," said Jackson, referencing a line in Angelou's poem "Still I Rise."
"Maya Angelou reminds us all of our better selves," says Wagner-Martin. Let's delve deeper into the life of this renowned author, using five of her most memorable quotes.
1. "Believe people when they tell you who they are. They know themselves better than you."
This quote appeared in Angelou's sixth autobiography, "A Song Flung Up to Heaven," which chronicles her life between 1965 and 1968. In context, Angelou was referring to a man named Phil, who said that he was ornery and a crazy liar when he met her. Weeks later, he purposefully stopped on railroad tracks while Angelou was in the car, taking off just in time to narrowly miss an approaching train. The incident scared Angelou deeply and convinced her that he was, indeed, mean and ornery. But this was a lesson that likely reared its head many times over the course of her life.
"People took advantage of her in the usual ways — so she had learned to be suspicious of motives," says Wagner-Martin, acknowledging all the jobs Angelou worked to support herself and her son. "By the time she became the impressive public speaker that people remember, she had lived through decades of penury, decades of various betrayals: She knew how unkind people could be, but her message in her dynamic lectures remained positive."
The quote is sometimes phrased as, "When people show you who they are, believe them" and Oprah Winfrey added her own twist on this. Winfrey considered Angelou a close friend and mentor and in a 1997 episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," Winfrey recalled discussing a boyfriend, who continuously stood her up and was unreliable, with Angelou. Angelou reminded her of the life lesson and asked her why she didn't get it the first time it happened? So, Winfrey said her adjunct to Angelou's quote is, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time."
2. "You may shoot me with your words/You may cut me with your eyes/You may kill me with your hatefulness/But still, like air, I'll rise."
Angelou was no stranger to adversity. She didn't speak for several years after being raped as a child. She was profoundly devasted by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as she'd worked with King and been friends with Malcolm. And she struggled with romance and money. Yet her story is not mired in tragedy.
One of Angelou's most popular poems, "Still I Rise" addresses her personal difficulties and the collective hardships of Black people, responding to them with hope and perseverance. In the poem, she acknowledged the hard truths of history while envisioning a bright future.
"Her poems, particularly the early ones, grew from songs that she had written while she was a dancer, singer and actress. Angelou drew from not only American music but African, from free forms that were universal, and she emphasized the sounds her poems created," says Wagner-Martin. "In these longer poems, she is speaking for so much human consciousness, such broad sympathy, that her personal words reach into other people's lives, something like an anthem might in a musical program at church."
3. "History, despite its wrenching pain/Cannot be unlived, but if faced/With courage, need not be lived again."
In 1993, Angelou became the second person ever to read a poem at a U.S. presidential inauguration. She composed and read "On the Pulse of Morning," the poem in which the above lines appear, at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
The poem was tuned to the inaugural spirit of renewal and hope, but it was still in Angelou's wheelhouse. It highlighted themes of unity, optimism, and courage that she often imbued in her literature. In fact, she often said that she considered courage the most important virtue, because without courage you couldn't practice any of the other virtues. "She understood how much bravery life demanded, and she took on any challenge that she saw," says Wagner-Martin.
While the poem itself wasn't a fan favorite, people praised her performance of the poem and the inspiration it provided. By this time, Angelou was well-established as an advocate for social change and a celebrity artist. Her recording of the poem won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album in 1994 and sales of her other works increased in the wake of the inauguration.
4. "You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great."
In an interview with Angelou, journalist Bill Moyers emphasized that she had "done almost anything [she] wanted to" and asked her about the price she paid for that freedom. The above quote was her response.
"Place, then, was more of an attitude than it was a physical house. And she learned to expand that sense of a stable, given identity, during the years she lived in Africa, where she found good employment, good friends and self-confidence," says Wagner-Martin. "Was her home in Arkansas? Was it in California? Was it in Africa? Was it in New York? And for the last 20 years of her life, was it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina? She manages through words to make readers see how unimportant 'place' really is."
"Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one's freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good Jew or good Muslim or good Zen Buddhist," Angelou added in the Moyers interview. "You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up the next morning with the job still to be done. So, you start all over again."
5. "One must nurture the joy in one's life so that it reaches full bloom."
This was not a case of "do as I say and not as I do." When it came to living a full life, Angelou led by example. "To read through Maya Angelou's various poem collections is to see her development not only as a poet but as a human being," says Wagner-Martin. By the time of her death in 2014, Angelou had cemented her status as "the people's poet."
In the above quote from "Rainbow in the Cloud: The Wisdom and Spirit of Maya Angelou," Angelou made it clear that cultivating joy is integral to a person's happiness. She had no problem putting someone out of her house for making a racist or homophobic joke or comment. "I believe that a negative statement is poison," Angelou told Winfrey in another interview. "And if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over."
"She created these maxims or sayings that acknowledged the widely based life she had lived, but she did not dwell on humanity's evils," says Wagner-Martin.