“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.”
On May 28, 2014, the world lost a legendary writer, scholar, musician, activist, award-winner, mother, and overall remarkable woman. Maya Angelou, for the way you changed the way people view others, themselves, and life as a whole, you will truly be missed. Maya Angelou is known for her love of poetry, specifically the “sound of language,” and ”the music in language.” For that reason, I find it important, and almost necessary, that we revisit some of her most endearing and meaningful quotes throughout this article. Many know the story of Dr. Angelou, for it is incredible to say the least.
Born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis Missouri, Marguerite Ann Johnson faced hardships early in her life: her parents divorced when she was three, and both she and her four-year-old brother were sent alone to Arkansas to live with their grandmother. Four years later, Johnson was forced to return to her mother in St. Louis, where she was sexually harassed constantly and physically abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Because of the trauma—events that no person, let alone child, should ever have to endure—Johnson refused to speak for five years. However, she remained strong. In her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Johnson explains that during her time in mental solitude, she developed her other senses: she honed her nearly photographic memory, developed a voracious appetite for literature, and finally formed a view of the world in a light that few are able to experience and appreciate.
“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!”
The rest of Johnson’s life was no walk in the park, either. At seventeen, she gave birth to her first son, Clyde, and spent the next few years of her life working as a prostitute and restaurant cook, all to support her son. In the following years, she endured a broken marriage, a failed dancing career, and the backbreaking pressure of Jim Crow racial intolerance prevalent in America at the time. But she survived. Survived and, as she hoped to do, thrived.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
From the ashes of a burnt past, Maya Angelou rose as a singer touring Europe with the opera production of Porgy and Bess. In 1957, the now Maya Angelou produced a successful album titled Miss Calypso. In 1959, Angelou moved to New York, joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and focused on her flourishing writing career. In 1960, after hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, Angelou helped organize the Cabaret for Freedom, a revue to raise funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1961, Angelou met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, with whom she kindled an unofficial marriage. They moved to Cairo, where she wrote for The Arab Observer. Her relationship with Make ended in 1962, and she moved with her son to Accra, Ghana, where she became an administrator at the University of Ghana. While in Ghana, Angelou became friends with Malcom X, who convinced her to return to the U.S. and help him build the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
“When we find someone who is brave, fun, intelligent, and loving, we have to thank the universe”
After the loss of her dear friend Malcom X and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Angelou fell into a depression. However, as author and Angelou-biographer Marcia Ann Gillespie explains, “If 1968 was a year of great pain, loss, and sadness, it was also the year when America first witnessed the breadth and depth of Maya Angelou’s spirit and creative genius.”
“No matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.”
From then on, Angelou worked as a composer for singer Roberta Flack, a writer for various news articles and short stories, a producer for plays nationwide, and a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Angelou’s accomplishments are unparalleled: her “Georgia, Georgia” is the first produced screenplay ever written by a black woman; she received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her poetry book Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie; she received three Grammys for her spoken word albums; she received thirty honorary doctoral degrees; she served on the presidential committees of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter; and she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010.
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
Maya Angelou was a trailblazer. A revolutionary. An inspiration. While her time on earth may have ended, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that her legacy is timeless. Regardless of your gender, race, age, economic standing, or beliefs, Dr. Angelou cared, and in some way—directly or indirectly—impacted you. Her strong beliefs and overwhelming compassion were, and forever will be, universally acknowledged and revered.
“The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.”
After her passing in her home in North Carolina, her son, Guy B. Johnson, summed up her life best: “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.” Thank you Dr. Angelou. You lived a life most can only hope to live. Rest in Peace.