[Updated] The Lessons of Maya Angelou

Today in important news: a documentary is being made about the life of Maya Angelou.

According to Kickstarter, no other documentary exists about the remarkable woman. “As friends from Dr. Angelou’s inner circle, we have been granted remarkable and unmatched access to Dr. Angelou’s life. After years of working on this film, we are honored to present her incredible journey to the rest of the world.”

Support the project here. As of October 27, 2015, there are only 35 days left to go.


May 28, 2014

After the news of Maya Angelou’s death broke, I spent a solid thirty minutes googling the prolific performer. A good way to gauge how unimpressive you are is to skim her Wikipedia page where you will learn that she is not only the author of seven autobiographies and the recipient of over thirty honorary doctoral degrees (I’m still waiting for my college diploma) but she worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in addition to her lobbying for women’s rights.

She also wrote poetry and plays and she acted. But in spite of this, it is a disservice to look exclusively to the written accolades that encompass her life span.

Her presence can only really be understood by listening to the conviction in her voice when she speaks and seeing the furrowed brow that tells of her compassion and sincerity while quotes just seemingly fall out of her mouth. (As a matter of fact, she has said, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”)

While Amelia watched YouTube video after video, she asked me how Angelou got to be the way she was. It’s an interesting thought to spotlight and presents the question of how any of us get to be the way we are.

Of course, I don’t have an answer, but perhaps it’s tethered to courage — “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.”

Here are a few more quotes worth absorbing:

“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.”

“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”

“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.”

“Nothing will work unless you do.”

“My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”

“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.”

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”

“Independence is a heady draught, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.”

“My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself.”

“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.”

“What is a fear of living? It’s being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself – for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don’t know what you’re here to do, then just do some good.”

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”

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

What do you have to say?

-Leandra Medine

  • Thamsa

    This is sad to hear, but it’s also amazing to know that such a beautiful and inspirational person existed. I believe her words have touched us all in some way

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  • ee_by_cc

    You totally hit the nail on the head when you talked about the conviction her voice. I always loved the way she could command a room to give meaning and feeling to everything. My copy of “I know why the caged bird sings” is worn and dog-eared with love, I’ve had it since I was 12. Saddened that the world has lost this talent, but grateful we had her for as long as we did.


  • Hudson Berry

    Thanks Leandra. This was nice to read.

    “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”

    That is hilariously relevant to manrepeller

    • Leandra Medine

      Isn’t it?

  • Such a tragedy. She was an amazing woman, who’s timeless words will live on infinitely.

    Thanks for this important article!


  • Beautiful! Teared me up.

  • boyfriendsandblazers

    “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.” after receiving a Monica Vinader bracelet as discussed this am.

  • RCCA

    Tremendously wise and a great liver of life. Thanks for putting this online.

  • This video moved me to tears. Thank you for posting. I am inspired to live by her definition of love. Feeling the loss of this amazing person.


  • Theresa Enright

    I was hoping you would write something dedicated to Maya. I admire how unafraid she was to write exactly what she wanted. Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman are two of my favorite poems.

  • Johanna

    Thanks for the lovely remembrance of Maya Angelou. She was one of the clear strong voices of her generation.

  • Susan

    I will miss her. I always loved hearing her speak. Definitely going on a Maya Angelou Wisdom internet binge tonight with a big bottle of wine.

  • Natasha Jarmick

    So happy to see this post here on MR. What a loss, but what a miracle that we had her for so long. Timeless.

  • me

    I only heard the sad news on the drive home from work this evening.

    As much as her wise & poetic words, I loved the tenor & the cadence of her voice.

    What a loss.

    Thank you for writing this today for us, Leandra ….

  • Gia

    I feel like all the heroes are gone.. She was and is inspirational and although I read all her 7 biographies 15 years ago I realised I forgot them and their inspirational messages. A month ago I picked up a copy of ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ out of a box (moved from overseas to nyc) I was unpacking after already being here a few months and realised I had forgotten her and reread it and just in time. As I’m starting to feel uselss and inadequate at not being able to find a job her books is exactly what I need perhaps. And tomorrow I’m gonna go to the library with my nypl card (which I’ve never used) and start that journey again I think. In a world that is full of untalented and overexposed fools like kimye, this is what we will now lack, Real talent and heart with something to really teach the world. RIP Maya Angelou.

    • Misha Lobo

      Funny, this is exactly what I thought..re.the Kimye part of your statement. In a world where the most vapid statements are taken as wisdom, it’s a pleasure to remember the power behind truly great people.

  • Roxanna

    philosophy means so much that even words cannot personify the essence
    of what she says, the essence can only be felt by those who are truly in
    touch with their inner being.

  • Michaela

    Even though she is physically no longer here, she is immortal in a way through her words. Thank you for curating these quotes – very moving.

  • This Oprah’s Master Class was by far one of my favorite TV moments.
    She was just riveting. What a life extraordinarily well lived.

  • Ladiesfashionsense

    RIP Dr. Maya Angelou! We have lost one of the greatest voices of our time. Her demonstration of courage, grace and brilliance will forever serve as a healing force to this world. She was a class act and she will be missed.


  • very sad to hear. x

  • pamb

    My favorite Maya Angelou quote comes via Oprah, of course (and I’m paraphrasing): when someone shows you who they are, believe them.

    So if they say they’re no good, they’re not looking for you to reform them. If they treat you badly, it’s because they meant to. If someone is repeatedly rude, they are telling you something. It’s up to you to listen to what they’re saying, and accept it.