8 Ways Maya Angelou Will Change You

by Lisa Hiton

By now anyone with an Internet connection is aware not only of Maya Angelou's death Wednesday but also of the poet, memoirist, activist, and dancer's incredible career and life, and the impact she had on so many lives. If you haven't read any Maya Angelou — or haven't read much — here are a few reasons why you should do so, now, and why it will forever change you.


A person whose life’s work makes Beyonce look unambitious is worth a close read. We know her primarily for her writing, but as many young writers must while they are unknown, she had a series of odd jobs before she became the acclaimed literary beacon we all love. As articulated in her seven autobiographies (seriously, how many lives do you know of worth that many pages), everything from night-club performer, to cook, to prostitute, to opera, to journalism, is experienced. Most writers become writers to have more experiences, personalities, lives, desires, and empathies than one human life, one body, can offer. Maya Angelou’s real poetry was her life story — her ability to keep hope during hardship and injustice, to persevere over time — historic and personal.


It’s one thing to be, to act, to perform at all moments of your life in its narrative and history. How, on top of that, you turn it all into brilliant literature, for keeps, is another feat altogether. Her life as a young black woman coming into selfhood, civil rights in America, multiple marriages, apartheid South Africa, decolonization in Ghana, and the rest are reborn in every page of her seven autobiographies.

Then there are the poems. Which we readers are manipulated into feeling, always, as autobiography. One must assume the “I”—the intimacy of which leads us, always, to believe so deeply that the reader, writer, and speaker are one. It enacts how poetry forces us to expand our capacity for empathy, for loving, and for suffering. In much of Angelou’s work, though, the “I” never appears.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

Rather, we are all caged birds. And those who are gone were caged birds. And those to come, too, will be caged birds. It is the singing we pass on, and the singing—the practice of it, the trill of suffering turned into song, that we give to others. The world may never see freedom for all in a given moment, but the hope for it will always have a song.


Poetry often gets a bad rap for being too difficult, too strange, too unrelatable. There are books of poems and poets who require different muscles and organs to experience the singing. Maya Angelou is a reminder, though, that poetry is an act of social anthropology, an act of public voice. From the “Caged Bird” to “On the Pulse of Morning,” her ability to speak in the vernacular of the public without cliché illuminates the subtle prowess of poetics, and the larger human truth — that the poetics are there in any given form to illuminate the content at the center. She demonstrated that truth in the first two stanzas of "On the Pulse of the Morning":

A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow,

I will give you no hiding place down here.

The conditions of human history in relation to the images in nature that are both real and symbolic — part of the ongoing dance between myth, allegory, and truth in our existence. Poetry is the vehicle to witness injustice, to live with it, reconcile it, advance from it without forgetting. The destiny in the distance for those before us is where we stand now, still looking at that horizon.


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Her friend James Baldwin helped her get her first autobiography published. Her pal Alvin Ailey started a modern dance team with her. She worked with her friends Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights movement. Her wannabe friend Bill Clinton asked her to read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at his inauguration. She supported Hilary Clinton during the 2008 primaries and then Barack Obama during the election. Tact and class all around.


How is it a beacon of such moral clout could ever be fodder for a centerpiece parody on SNL? Simply make her naughty, even when the naughtiest thing we could imagine the acclaimed, postured, Maya Angelou to do is play a prank. Of course, those pranked respond with “it has been an honor” and “I accept.”


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For the self, for kin, for the other, for nations, and against time. Over the works of Maya Angelou, these loves are articulated and explicated. Her titles alone suggest a desire to know all kinds of love — “Kin," And Still I Rise, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “The Mothering Blackness," “Phenomenal Woman," “On the Pulse of Morning," “A Plagued Journey," Gather Together in My Name, All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, and so on.

The lesson on love from her life’s work is that there must be love for the self in place in order to see love in others — be they individuals or larger societal entities. Maya Angelou was as much a model in her work as she was in her body as a strong black woman who kept those identities at the forefront of her efforts. And throughout a life filled with adventure, politics, and hardships, love stayed at the center, and that is ultimately what we will remember her for. According to Canada's CBCNews Angelou told an interviewer in 1985, “What I would really like said about me is that I dared to love. By love I mean that condition in the human spirit so profound it encourages us to develop courage and build bridges, and then to trust those bridges and cross the bridges in attempts to reach other human beings.”

Her narrative is not only an act of poetry, but more deeply, it’s an act of poetry in service of a greater public, a greater endeavor toward social anthropology.


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“I’m a woman Phenomenally.”

“If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.”

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

“Nothing will work unless you do.”

“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.”

(Read more great Maya Angelou quotes here.)


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From her seven autobiographies to her poetry, Angelou consistently pointed us towards altruism — an abstraction that in postmodern America can seem like a 19th century myth, now on reserve for only particular kinds of writers, particular kinds of humans.

The first thing I felt after reading Maya Angelou’s poetry as a teenager was the desire for social justice — for something outside of myself. It was an important turning point in my moral education, having read her at that time. There was still suffering ahead, still so much to experience and survive — and there still is. And when I feel myself caged, I try to think of the destinies I hope for my life and the lives of others. It is rare to feel a calm about social justice these days, but in her deft hands, the harmony is so ripe that — even if only for the moments I’m reading her words — I believe it.