5 Lessons From the Late Dr. Maya Angelou

This past week, Wake Forest University students opened their emails to the following message from the University:

“Today members of the Wake Forest University community mourn the loss of beloved poet, author, actress, civil rights activist and professor Dr. Maya Angelou.”

Angelou passed away in her North Carolina home on Wednesday, May 28, at the age of 86. She served as the University’s Reynolds Professor of American Studies since 1982 and published more than 30 books of fiction and poetry, including her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights,” said Nathan Hatch, President of Wake Forest University, in a press release.

As a Wake Forest student myself, I have had the honor to be an audience to her melodic voice on a few occasions, feeling as if each syllable shared with the room was a personal invitation to become a part of her world.

But these words were not merely pretty verses, but heartfelt, aching testaments to a life filled with obstacles, grit and determination. With her parents divorcing when she was only 3, Angelou continued to face tumultuous circumstances as she was later raped by her mother’s boyfriend around age 8. At age 17, she gave birth to son, Guy.

“I will always treasure “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” because by revealing the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, Angelou opened the door to emotional healing for a lot of girls,” wrote Mary Mitchell in the article “Young Black Mothers Can Learn A Lot from Maya Angelou’s Life,” in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Through her openness about her own mistakes, Angelou helps others find the courage to confront their own struggles and failings. Below you will find five small lessons, from among many, left behind from one of the most “phenomenal” women of our time.

  1. “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.” — Interview for Beautifully Said Magazine (2012)
  2. “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” — Excerpted from “Letter to My Daughter,” a book of essays (2009)
  3. “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.” — Interview in USA TODAY (March 5, 1988)
  4. “Your destiny is to develop the courage to flesh out the great dreams, to dare to love, to dare to care, to dare to want to be significant and to admit it, not by the things you own or the positions you hold, but by the lives you live.” — 1985 Commencement Speech at Wake Forest University
  5. “I am a Woman Phenomenally, Phenomenal Woman, that’s me.” — “Phenomenal Woman,” poem (1978)

A remembrance website and guestbook for Maya Angelou can be found here.

— Blythe Riggan

Sources: Maya Angelou, WFU, Old Gold and Black, Sun Times, USA Today
Photo: Oprah