In her 86 years of life, Maya Angelou experienced and accomplished more than most people would in 10 lifetimes. Early in her career, she worked as a streetcar conductor, cook, and nightclub performer, among other jobs. In the 1960s, she became active in the civil rights movement, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She also acted, wrote, and directed for the stage, TV, and movies, and she gave lectures, composed music, wrote two cookbooks, and recited a poem at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration.
Somehow, Angelou also found time to write seven autobiographies, beginning in 1969 with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. These are considered her most important works, dealing with themes such as race, identity, and family. During her incredible career, she received many awards and accolades, including more than 50 honorary degrees, three Grammys, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Writing helped Angelou to find her voice — quite literally in this case. Angelou was raped when she was just a young girl, after which she stopped speaking for several years. “I was a mute from the time I was seven and a half until I was almost 13,” she explained in an interview with the Academy of Achievement. “I didn’t speak. I had a voice, but I refused to use it.”
Through her poetry and prose — and through reading it aloud — Angelou rediscovered her voice. With the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she became one of the first Black American women to discuss her personal life in such a public manner. She wrote openly and honestly, both to forgive others and to forgive herself. As Angelou once said, “It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself, because if you live you will make mistakes.”
Wise words such as these have become a part of Angelou’s legacy. Here are some of her greatest quotes, born of her singular writing ability, life experience, compassion, and wisdom.
I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences.
We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay — and rise!
Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.
When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking.
I believe that each of us comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory.
You can never be great at anything unless you love it. Not be in love with it, but love the thing, admire the thing. And it seems that if you love the thing, and you don't just want to possess it, it will find you.
Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
You did in your 20s what you knew how to do, and when you knew better you did better. And you should not be judged for the person that you were, but for the person that you're trying to be and the woman that you are now.
Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.
There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.
We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can't ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won't stand up for myself. And once you stand up for yourself, you'd be surprised that people say, “Can I be of help?”
Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.
I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.
If we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.
Pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off you.
We need much less than we think we need.
If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?
Determine to live life with flair and laughter.
I work very hard, and I play very hard. I’m grateful for life. And I live it.
Nothing will work unless you do.
This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.
The only way out of something is all the way through it.
In all my work what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.
Take a day to heal from the lies you’ve told yourself and the ones that have been told to you.
Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.
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