Remembering the wit and wisdom of Maya Angelou

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Moya Crockett
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On what would have been the writer and activist’s 90th birthday, we look back at some of her most life-affirming quotes. 

The writer, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou would have celebrated her 90th birthday on 4 April 2018. She died in May 2014 after suffering from heart problems, leaving behind an awe-inspiring body of work and legions of fans around the world.

Angelou’s intimate but unsentimental memoirs, beginning with 1969’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, are treated as canonical texts in the US and have been credited with reframing how we think about autobiography. She was nominated for a Pulitzer for her 1971 poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, bagged a Tony nomination two years later for her role in a Broadway play, and won three Grammys for her spoken word albums. In 1993, she recited her poem On the Pulse of the Morning at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration; in 2011, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US.

But beyond all her accolades and awards, Angelou is best remembered for her wit, warmth and wisdom. Even if you didn’t know her – or indeed, anyone like her – it was impossible not to read her writing or watch her being interviewed by Oprah without feeling that you were listening to a sage, savvy older relative share their hard-won knowledge of the world. 

And of course, Angelou’s knowledge was hard-won: she grew up poor, was sexually abused and raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, saw her rapist murdered after she testified against him, had a baby at 17, worked as a sex worker and had to contend with near-constant racism and sexism. She spoke and wrote about all of these things frankly, with the goal of reducing other people’s shame about their own lives.

“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, moi? Never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet,’” Angelou told an interviewer in 1995. “They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, ‘Damn, I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.”

Below, we’ve rounded up 15 of Angelou’s most thought-provoking and life-affirming quotes. 

Angelou in a promotional portrait for the cover of her 1957 album Miss Calypso

On handling setbacks

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

On dealing with others

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

“A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.”

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”

Angelou pictured in 2011 

On race

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

“I am proud and grateful to God to be an African American woman.” 

On self-love

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

“I learned a long time ago the wisest thing I can do is be on my own side, be an advocate for myself and others like me.”

Angelou being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2011

On work

“Nothing will work unless you do.”

“Whatever you want to do, if you want to be great at it, you have to love it and be able to make sacrifices for it.”

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

Best literary quotes: maya angelou on the beach

Poet and writer Maya Angelou 

On ageing

“The most important thing I can tell you about ageing is this: if you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it. Even if you’re wrinkled.”

On ambition

“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.”

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.”

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images