The Wisdom of Maya Angelou

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsAmerican author, activist, and poet Maya Angelou, who passed away on May 28, 2014, was one of the most famous black female writers in the world. As a child she was influenced by well-known authors like William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, as well as black female writers like Jessie Fauset, Frances Harper, and Anne Spencer. Angelou met and worked with Malcom X. and Martin Luther King and became a passionate champion of the Civil Rights movement. The assassination of King, that happened on Angelou’s 40th birthday (April 4, 1968), left her sad and depressed. It was Angelou’s friend, author James Baldwin, who convinced her to mine the depth of her feelings and experiences to write about her life. Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969, reflects her experience growing up in poverty, amidst racial segregation, and dealing with the scars of a traumatic rape. This first book is regarded by many scholars as the quintessential African American autobiography; moreover, it was an inspiration for all other black female authors. It became an international best-seller and was followed by six additional volumes (published between 1974 and 2013). Angelou was also a poet; her most famous poem is titled “On the Pulse of the Morning,” written for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

Angelou led an extraordinary life — she had a remarkable number of very diverse jobs throughout her 86 years, including: cable car conductor (one of San Francisco’s first female conductors), waitress, cook, dancer, prostitute, pimp, actress, singer, activist, journalist, writer, poet, epigrammist, screenwriter, professor, public speaker, and philosopher. Gary Younge, in an article for The Guardian, said it best: “Probably more than almost any other writer alive, Angelou’s life literally is her work.” She was recognized for her many achievements, including more than 30 honorary degrees, the Langston Hughes Medal (1991), National Medal of Arts (2000), the Lincoln Medal (2008) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011). However, she will not be remembered for winning all these medals — she will be remembered for dedicating her life to writing the unvarnished truth and for her graciousness, warmth, and wisdom. Bookshelf honors the life of Maya Angelou by sharing some of her most famous and inspiring quotes.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

“If you don’t lie something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude about it.”

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

 “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”

“I know for sure that love saves me and that it is here to save us all.”

“The love of the family, the love of one person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.”

“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.”

“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”

“You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot – it’s all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”

“I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lieved again.”

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

“We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

“I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.”

“The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”

“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”

Read related posts: Letters to a Young Poet
Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Random House (2009)



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