In Her Own Words: Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Author, poet and educator Dr. Maya Angelou, January 1993. Photo by Getty Images via achievement.org

I thought I would be a poet and playwright. Those were the two forms I really enjoyed. I made my living as a journalist, of course, but I thought that I would just stick with those and I would become better and better and better. But in ’68 … I was at a dinner — now this is name-dropping, but these were the people — James Baldwin had taken me over to see Jules Feiffer and Jules’ then-wife, Judy Feiffer, and we talked all night, and I really had to work very hard to get a word in because they’re all great raconteurs.

The next day, Judy Feiffer called a man who is still my editor at Random House and said, “If you can get her to write an autobiography, I think you’d have something.” He phoned me a number of times, Robert Loomis, and I said, “No, I’m not interested,” until he said to me, “Well, Ms. Angelou, I guess it’s just as well that you don’t attempt this book because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible.” So I thought, “Oh, well, in that case, I better try.” Well, I found that’s the form I love. I love autobiography. … It challenges me to try and speak through the first-person singular and mean the third-person plural.

NPR, 1986


I think that if we have a responsibility — human beings, that is to say — then it may be that we are responsible for the time we take up and the space we occupy. It may be, after that, it may be to try to live a life so that one likes oneself. Then it may be to try to be the kind of person who does lift up, whose name in the street is a blessing and not a curse, so people feel better — and they think they feel better about the person they’ve just talked to. The truth is, they feel better about themselves.

The Columbus Dispatch, 2007

The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country’s table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast. Hence the janitor who lives in one room but sports a robin’s-egg-blue Cadillac is not laughed at but admired, and the domestic who buys $40 shoes is not criticized but is appreciated. We know that they have put to use their full mental and physical powers. Each single gain feeds into the gains of the body collective.

— via The Root

You have to be mad while you’re young. Later on, it doesn’t look good on you. I was mad at injustice. And I didn’t understand very much about it. I kept wondering, “But why me? I’m a nice person. Why do people get up when I sit down on buses, or streetcars or something? Why? I’m really very kind, and funny.” But Godfrey Cambridge and I decided we would do a cabaret in New York City and raise money for Dr. King. After we heard him speak, we were just bowled over.

So we started a theater called Cabaret For Freedom, and we had some of the people who later became very famous — as famous as he. And we raised the money and gave it to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And then the man who was the head of the New York group, Bayard Rustin, who was a great hero, decided to leave and many people came to look for the job as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Northern representative. I was young, I had a big ‘fro, and I went in to apply for the job.

Now, people had gone who had doctorates from that, and Master’s from that, and who were very full of themselves, and quite capable, I’m sure. But I was young, and I was mad. So I went in to be interviewed and I said, “If you want someone who has letters behind her name, then you don’t want me. But if you want someone who will get the job done, you’d be well-advised to choose Maya Angelou.”

— The Arsenio Hall Show, 1990

I mean, I’m married. But I’ve always resented the idea that a stranger can tell me and another person that it’s all right now for us to cohabit. I’ve married many times against my will, because the man wanted that. But two honorable people can be together with respect and love and laughter as long as it lasts. Laughing together or reading the Sunday paper and arguing over the Newts-of-the-world.

I married a man once because of something he said. We were in England, and somebody said that women should always expect to be raped if they wore very short pants and low decolletage and acted “fast.” So this man, whom I knew slightly, said, “If a woman has no panties on and sits with her legs wide open, no man has the right to assault her. When a guy tells me, ‘I couldn’t resist because she did sit in such a provocative way,’ all I want to know is if four of her brothers were standing there with baseball bats, would they have resisted?” [laughs]

Mother Jones, 1995

I was Black and 16. I saw women on the streetcars with the little changer belts. And they had caps with bills on them, and they had form-fitting uniforms. I loved the uniforms. So I said, “That’s a job I want.”

I went down to place an application, and they wouldn’t even give it to me. And so I went back to my mother and I said, “They won’t even allow me to apply.” She asked me, “Do you know why?” I said, “Yes, because I’m a Negro.” She said, “Yes, but do you want the job?’ I said yes. She said, “Go get it. Here, I’ll give you money. Every day you go down, be there before the secretaries get there. You sit there in the office. You read one of your big, thick Russian books” — I was reading Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, something at the time.

She said, “And then when they go to lunch, you go. Go to a good restaurant. You know how to order good food. Go back before the secretaries get there. And then sit there until they leave.” They laughed at me, they poofed up their lips, and used some negative racial things. But I sat there. But here’s the thing: I sat there because I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to tell my mother that I wasn’t as strong as she thought I was.

— on becoming San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor, Oprah Winfrey Network, May 2013

I’ve still not written as well as I want to. I want to write so that the reader in Des Moines, Iowa, in Kowloon, China, in Cape Town, South Africa, can say, “You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.”

Time Magazine, 2013

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  • http://youtu.be/WLqOxS4o8hw Elle Beah LB

    Dr. Maya Angelou has given us ALL something to strive for as human beings and as women of color in particular. She exemplifies for us the true meaning of the word LIMITLESS.

    There are no LIMITS! Maya Angelou proved and shall continue to prove that Truth.

    She has shown the WORLD what WE are really made of!
    Human Potential…her LIFE is a testimony to Human Potential…ACTUALIZED.

    As I reflect on her life and her tremendous impact on the world and on many of us as individuals, it still boggles the Mind, warms the Heart and uplifts the Soul. She is a Contradiction and an Affirmation all AT ONCE!

    She has BLESSED and TRANSFORMED the WORLD…both inner & outer WORLDS.

    Her Light, Wisdom & Words live on in my Heart–in Our Hearts forever… So, though some may attempt to diminish her accomplishments; the accomplishments of all women–and definitely women of color–Black, negro, African American Women–WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED!

    WE know who we are despite what “they” might call us Secretly or upon the world’s now “politically-corrected”(yet infected) stage.

    “She heard the names…
    swirling ribbons in
    the winds of
    HISTORY…”

    R.I.P. to a Goddess-Shero True Angel-GRAND-Mother-Leader-Poet-Priest; Dr. Maya Angelou.

    PLEASE LISTEN TO: Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou: 1928 — 2014 – Our Grandmothers – read by eLLe Beah — On YouTube – http://youtu.be/WLqOxS4o8hw