Why you should care
The literary world has lost a strong voice. But the poet’s words will continue to rise. And still rise.
The poet Maya Angelou was one of the greatest creative minds the 20th century produced. Burdened with a tumultuous childhood, Angelou experienced sexual abuse, muteness and poverty, which informed the themes of pain, hope and survival that coursed through her work. Her output spanned all fields — dance, theater, journalism, film, music, fiction, memoir and poetry — but she is best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , published in 1969, which redefined the possibilities of the literary memoir.
Born Marguerite Ann Johnson to working class parents in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou grew into a cultural icon, working closely with James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1950s and ’60s. Later, she mentored a young Oprah Winfrey. In 1981, Angelou joined the faculty at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her home for the rest of her life. Later, she became the world’s most visible and well-known living poet when she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton.
Though her death leaves a hole that the world will struggle to fill, Maya Angelou also leaves her vivid and sage writing behind to serve as both example and guide. Below, OZY shares three favorite passages from an astounding body of work.
On striving in the face of defeat
“There is, I hope, a thesis in my work: we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. That sounds goody-two-shoes, I know, but I believe that a diamond is the result of extreme pressure and time. Less time is crystal. Less than that is coal. Less than that is fossilized leaves. Less than that it’s just plain dirt. In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats – maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats – but we are much stronger than we appear to be, and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be.”
– excerpt from The Language They Speak is Things to Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets , ed. Michael McFee (UNC Press, 1994)
Words of advice for a child she never had
“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. You might find a new solution.
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.
Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.”
– excerpts from, Letter to My Daughter (Random House, 2009)
On what lies beyond
“Preacher, please don’t
streets of gold
and milk for free.
I stopped all milk
at four years old
and once I’m dead
I won’t need gold.
I’d call a place
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
where the music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.”
– excerpt from “Preacher, Don’t Send Me,” I Shall not be Moved (Random House, 1990)