What Maya Angelou Taught Me

I was at work when I received the news that one of the world’s greatest mentors, writers, activists, artists, teachers and treasures had left the world, I honestly had to take a moment to shed a few tears. Selfishly enough, it felt like Dr. Maya Angelou should somehow be here among us, dropping gems of wisdom forever.

Mother Maya embodied strength of character, wisdom, courage, razor sharp wit and intelligence, and perhaps the most powerful of them all…love. Though I never got the privilege to meet her in person (thankfully, I did get the opportunity to hear her speak), her words were more than enough.

And, I know that despite all my efforts, mine will never be enough to pay tribute to such a giant upon whose shoulders I stand.

Dr. Maya Angelou’s work had been canonized in my collection of prolific writings. Both her life and her work had a profound impact on my coming to “be” as a Black woman. Like many little Black girls, works like I Know Why The Caged Bird sings changed my life – and that’s really an understatement. But it doesn’t end there. Dr. Angelou’s work resonated so deeply with me  (and I’m sure the lives of others) and in so many various stages of my life as I navigated through my teens and my college years. And, it continues to as I wade my way through adult Black womanhood.

Almost immediately after the news of her passing was made public, people on Twitter filled my timeline with the harvest they gleaned from Mother Maya’s rich field with the trending topic: #WhatMayaTaughtMe. We learned – as some of us already knew – just how deeply countless others were impacted by her life and her work.

So, I’d like to share 4 (there’s so many more) things that Dr. Maya Angelou taught me – each lesson speaking to a different stage of my life:

1. She helped me embrace my identity as a Black girl/woman – fiercely

Growing up and coming of age in a VERY homogenous town, it was rare to find anyone else who looked like me (outside of my own household) in day-to-day life. With that, came struggle as I fought to understand my place in the world as a Black girl. Thankfully, I was surrounded my the love and affirmation of my parents, but outside of that, my identity wasn’t affirmed in the ways that are the “norm” for other peers whose skin lacked melanin. Nearly every child wants to just “fit in” and I was no different, but I knew that was different.

My hair wasn’t the same, my skin wasn’t the same and my body shape wasn’t the same, nor was it celebrated outside of my own home. But, the moment I read the words:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size…

from Phenomenal Woman for the first time, I knew that it would be a sin not to celebrate the things that made me different – even if I had to do it by myself in the company of others who may not understand. From that day on, you could not TELL me I wasn’t everything in life.

Mother Maya’s words were a saving grace for me and other women and girls surrounded in environments where our kind of beauty was rarely acknowledged.

2. She taught me about courageous love

Then, when I got to college…I fell in love for the first time. Overwhelmed and scared out of my mind, not knowing what to do with myself or even how to care for the person I had clumsily declared my love for, Mother Maya’s wisdom helped teach me one of the most enlightening things about love:

She said:

“You have to have courage to love somebody. Because you risk everything. Everything.”

And risk everything I did – without feeling weak, without feeling ashamed, and without regret.

I still try to love that way – embracing the frightful vulnerability and enchanting euphoria of it, each and every time.

3. She taught me how to be disruptive – on purpose

Mother Maya had a front row seat to the ugliness of Jim Crow segregation and all the guile that came along with it. Within her very rich life, she was, among other things, an activist – returning from living and working abroad (also as an activist) to lend her hands and her voice to the American Civil Rights Movement.

She understood the importance of service in this way, but that’s not the only way she served as a disruptor. Dr. Angelou’s work – after devastating losses of two close friends, Malcolm X (El-Hajj El Malik Shabazz) and Dr. Martin Luther King, helped disrupt the world’s ideas of what it meant to be black and what it meant to be a woman.

During those angsty college years of mine, I, too, learned what it truly meant to disrupt. I tell everyone that my undergraduate years was a time where I found my activist voice (and arms and legs). It was a result of her influence and the influence of many others that I made the decision to stand against injustices I saw happening on my college campus. It was then I truly learned and demonstrated the courage to speak truth to power. I credit Dr. Maya Angelou (and others) for emphasizing the importance of telling the truth, no matter how ugly, uncomfortable, and unpleasant it may be.

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” 

4. She taught me to give myself the permission embrace re-invention

One of the many other wonderful things about Dr. Maya Angelou that I love to celebrate is that she fully embraced other ways of “being,” reinventing herself over and again…and only getting better.

When people speak of Mother Maya, they have no choice but to describe her by her various roles: activist, dancer, singer, poet, writer, teacher…the list really goes on. That’s because she was not afraid of self re-invention.  In fact, she gave herself the permission to many times over.

From being San Fransisco’s first Black woman streetcar conductor to becoming a Calypso singer and dancer to being a Madam, to becoming an actress to being a teacher, writer and poet…

She really lived a full, adventurous life – one that should be celebrated for decades to come. It’s like she thrived on the ability to add another dimension to her identity.

And, as I’m in the midst of a major reinvention of self of my own, I’m reminded that to be able to do such a thing requires bravery, encourages continual learning, and is absolutely necessary for survival.

I partly have her to thank for that, too.

Rest in peace and power, Dr. Maya Angelou. I’m forever grateful for your wisdom, your words and your work.




Courtney Written by: