Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “maya angelou”

Maya Angelou on Identity and the Meaning of Life

“Life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you.”

The light of the world has grown a little dimmer with the loss of the phenomenal Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), but her legacy endures as a luminous beacon of strength, courage, and spiritual beauty. Angelou’s timeless wisdom shines with unparalleled light in a 1977 interview by journalist Judith Rich, found in Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library) — the same magnificent tome that gave us the beloved author’s conversation with Bill Moyers on freedom — in which Angelou explores issues of identity and the meaning of life.

Reflecting on her life, Angelou — who rose to cultural prominence through the sheer tenacity of her character and talent, despite being born into a tumultuous working-class family, abandoned by her father at the age of three, and raped at the age of eight — tells Rich:

I’ve been very fortunate… I seem to have a kind of blinkers. I just do not allow too many negatives to soil me. I’m very blessed. I have looked quite strange in most of the places I have lived in my life, the stages, spaces I’ve moved through. I of course grew up with my grandmother: my grandmother’s people and my brother are very very black, very lovely. And my mother’s people were very very fair. I was always sort of in between. I was too tall. My voice was too heavy. My attitude was too arrogant — or tenderhearted. So if I had accepted what people told me I looked like as a negative yes, then I would be dead. But I accepted it and I thought, well, aren’t I the lucky one.

She later revisits the question of identity, echoing Leo Buscaglia’s beautiful meditation on labels, as she reflects on the visibility her success granted her and the responsibility that comes with it:

What I represent in fact, what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself. That’s what I’m trying to do. And I miss most of the time on that: I do not represent blacks or tall women, or women or Sonomans or Californians or Americans. Or rather I hope I do, because I am all those things. But that is not all that I am. I am all of that and more and less. People often put labels on people so they don’t have to deal with the physical fact of those people. It’s easy to say, oh, that’s a honkie, that’s a Jew, that’s a junkie, or that’s a broad, or that’s a stud, or that’s a dude. So you don’t have to think: does this person long for Christmas? Is he afraid that the Easter bunny will become polluted? … I refuse that… I simply refuse to have my life narrowed and proscribed.

To be sure, beneath Angelou’s remarkable optimism and dignity lies the strenuous reality she had to overcome. Reflecting on her youth, she channels an experience all too familiar to those who enter life from a foundation the opposite of privilege:

It’s very hard to be young and curious and almost egomaniacally concerned with one’s intelligence and to have no education at all and no direction and no doors to be open… To go figuratively to a door and find there’s no doorknob.

And yet Angelou acknowledges with great gratitude the kindness of those who opened doors for her in her spiritual and creative journey. Remembering the Jewish rabbi who offered her guidance in faith and philosophy and who showed up at her hospital bedside many years later after a serious operation, Angelou tells Rich:

The kindnesses … I never forget them. And so they keep one from becoming bitter. They encourage you to be as strong, as volatile as necessary to make a well world. Those people who gave me so much, and still give me so much, have a passion about them. And they encourage the passion in me. I’m very blessed that I have a healthy temper. I can become quite angry and burning in anger, but I have never been bitter. Bitterness is a corrosive, terrible acid. It just eats you and makes you sick.

Painting by Basquiat from Angelou’s ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.’ Click image for more.

At the end of the interview, Angelou reflects on the meaning of life — a meditation all the more poignant as we consider, in the wake of her death, how beautifully she embodied the wisdom of her own words:

I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns. Courage is probably the most important of the virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any of the other virtues, you can’t say against a murderous society, I oppose your murdering. You got to have courage to do so. I seem to have known that a long time and found great joy in it.

The totality of Conversations with Maya Angelou is a powerful portal into the beloved writer’s soul. Complement it with Angelou on home, belonging, and (not) growing up, her children’s verses about courage illustrated by Basquiat, and her breathtaking reading of “Phenomenal Woman.”

BP

Maya Angelou Recites Her Poem “Phenomenal Woman”

Beautiful recording brings to life a cultural classic.

Celebrated poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014) is one of the most influential literary voices of our time and a testament to the tenacity — creative, social, spiritual — of the human spirit. From her extraordinary autobiographies to her beautiful essays to her lesser-known children’s verses, Angelou has served as an inspiration to generations. To generations of women in particular, her poem “Phenomenal Woman,” found in the sublime and soul-lifting 1978 poetry volume And Still I Rise (public library), became an anthem of empowerment, and nowhere does it come to life more beautifully than as it pours out from Angelou’s own lips, who recites her iconic poem in this rare recording:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

And Still I Rise is a magnificent read from cover to cover. Complement it with Angelou on freedom in a 1973 conversation with Bill Moyers, her charming children’s verses, illustrated by Basquiat, and her meditation on home, belonging, and (not) growing up.

BP

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

In the early 1970s, revered interviewer Bill Moyers met Maya Angelou — beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and one of the most influential literary voices of our time — at a dinner party in New York. As the two began talking, they realized they had grown up only a hundred miles apart in the South — he, a white boy in “the gentle and neighborly white world that opened generously to ambition and luck”; she, a black girl “in the tight and hounded other world of the South, whose boundaries black children crossed only in their imagination, and even then at intolerable risk”; “two strangers from the same but different place.”

This is what Moyers recalls as he sits down with Angelou on November 21, 1973 and proceeds to shepherd one of his legendary interviews, found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library).

After Moyers, a true celebrator of his guests, enumerates Angelou’s many accomplishments and accolades in a short biographical introduction, he smoothly glides into the uncomfortable but necessary, asking the author about the parallel struggles of being both black and female “in a society that doesn’t know who you are.” Her answer comes as a vital reminder that “identity is something that you are constantly earning … a process that you must be active in”:

Well, one works at it, certainly. Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one’s freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good jew or a good Moslem or a good Zen Buddhist. You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again.

President Barack Obama awards Dr. Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on February 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (AP photo via NPR)

She addresses the laziness of stereotypes:

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie, that’s a nigger, that’s a kike, that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it.

When Moyers asks Angelou whether she sees the women’s liberation movement, reaching its most critical zenith at the time, as “a white woman’s fantasy,” she replies with a meditation on sociocultural history:

No, certainly not a fantasy. … A necessity. … They definitely need it. … [But it says] very little [to black women], I’m afraid. You see, white women have been made to feel in this society that they are superfluous. A white man can run his society.

[…]

The white American man makes the white American woman maybe not superfluous but just a little kind of decoration. Not really important to the turning around of the wheels.

Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history in the United States has been able to feel that he didn’t need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder — in that cotton field, on the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is an integral if not a most important part of the family unit. There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet. And I believe that we have to thank black women not only for keeping the black family alive but the white family.

Later in the conversation, Angelou makes the curious assertion that Watergate is “the most positive thing that is happening in this country” (and it’s interesting to revisit her rationale four decades later, with a movement like Occupy), explaining:

I believe so. Because white Americans — you see, there was a period when white Americans were marching in Selma and marching to Washington, for the blacks they thought, you see. But the struggle due to Watergate is for the whites. It’s for their morality, for their integrity. It’s the first time since the early part of the nineteenth century that a great mass of whites have really been concerned about their own morality. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were whites who became Abolitionists and supported the Underground railroad, not because they loved blacks but because they loved truth. And not since that time — I mean all the World War II business, where we all got together and balled up string, and so forth, was for somebody else. It was for the Jews and Europe.

But suddenly — not so suddenly — in the United States the people are concerned about their own morality, their own continuation. … And that, I believe, will reflect in turn and in time on the black American struggle.

Presaging her timeless wisdom on home and belonging penned 35 years later, Angelou once again returns to the subject of freedom:

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

When Moyers asks Angelou what wisdom she’d share with a hypothetical young daughter — a question that would sprout the wonderful Letter to My Daughter more than three decades later — she offers:

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

Moyers asks Angelou how, despite the devastating events of her life, she managed to “stay open to the world, open to hope,” and she reflects:

Well, I think you get to a place where you realize you have nothing to lose. Nothing at all. Then you have no reason to bind yourself. I had no reason to hold on. I found it stupid to hold on, to close myself up and hold within me nothing. So I decided to try everything, to keep myself wide open to human beings, all human beings — seeing them as I understand them to be, not as they wish they were, but as I understand them to be. Very truthfully — not idealistically, but realistically. And seeing that if this person knew better he would do better. That doesn’t mean that I don’t protect myself from his actions, you know.

(Exactly twenty years later, Angelou would come to capture this ethos in her wonderful children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by the great Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The interview closes by coming full-circle to the question of freedom, on which Angelou offers one final, poignant, counterintuitive but profound meditation:

Being free is being able to accept people for what they are, and not try to understand all they are or be what they are. … I think one of the most dangerous statements made in the United States, or descriptive phrases, is that it’s a melting pot. And look at the goo it’s produced.

Find more of Angelou’s enduring wisdom in the rest of Conversations with Maya Angelou, which features thirty-one more remarkable and revealing interviews with the celebrated author and modern sage.

BP

From Abigail Adams to Maya Angelou, History’s Finest Letters of Motherly Advice

“Live to the HILT!”

Last year, we celebrated Father’s Day with an omnibus of history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Jackson Pollock, and Neil Armstrong. Later adding to them was more timeless epistolary advice from notable dads like Ted Hughes, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Dawkins, and Charles Dickens.

There’s no need to wait until Mother’s Day to enjoy a similarly spirited selection of history’s finest motherly advice, spanning nearly half a millennium of poignant and prescient counsel from notable moms.

From Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library), which also gave us the author’s surprising report card, comes this remarkable 1969 missive she penned aboard an airplane for her daughter Linda to revisit later in life:

Anne Sexton

Dear Linda,

I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.

And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.

1st I love you.

2. You never let me down.

3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 with a dead mother who I needed still. . . .

This is my message to the 40 year old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it — wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I’ve had a good life — I wrote unhappy — but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda — Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you 40 year old, Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are!—Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart — I’m in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her — or she me! Silly Anne! So there!

XOXOXO
Mom

Maya Angelou

In Letter to My Daughter (public library), which also gave us her beautiful meditation on home and belonging, beloved author and reconstructionist Maya Angelou writes to the daughter she never had:

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.

Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.

Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.

Clare Boothe Luce

Clare Boothe Luce was blond, athletic, and good-looking in an age when those attributes came with a set of expectations quite different from who she was. Ambitious and feisty, she emerged as a trailblazing media maven and went on to become the managing editor of Vanity Fair, a celebrated playwright, and a formidable congresswoman. In 1944, she became the first woman ever to deliver the keynote address at a national political convention. Her 1953 appointment as Ambassador to Italy made her the first female American ambassador to major post abroad. On November 24, 1942, Luce penned a letter to her 18-year-old daughter Ann, a sophomore at Stanford, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the same wonderful anthology that gave us Sherwood Anderson’s timelessly poetic advice on the creative life. Amidst counsel on Ann’s first romantic relationship, Luce offers the following advice:

Don’t worry about your studies. When you want to do them well you will do them superbly but for the moment the main thing is to get what little happiness there is out of life in this wartorn world because “these are the good old days” now.

Anne Bradstreet

America’s first woman poet, Anne Bradstreet, was also the first American in history to have a book of poetry published when her brother-in-law, John Woodbridge, printed a selection of her poems in 1650 against her will. The mother of eight children, her poems had been largely a private treat for her family and a great personal joy. In March of 1664, Bradstreet sent her second son, Simon, the following selection of “Meditations” on life, of which she’d go on to produce another seventy-three besides the four included here. The letter, featured in the 1897 tome The Poems of Mrs. Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672): Together with Her Prose Remains (public library), was found after Bradstreet’s death in 1672 at her home in Massachusetts.

For my deare Sonne Simon Bradstreet.

PARENTS perpetuate their lives in their posterity, and their maners in their imitation. Children do natureally rather follow the failings then the vertues of their predecessors, but I am perswaded better things of you. You once desired me to leave something for you in writeing that you might look upon when you should see me no more. I could think of nothing more fit for you, nor of more ease to my self, then these short meditations following. Such as they are I bequeath to you: small legacys are accepted by true friends, much more by duty full children. I have avoyded incroaching upon others conceptions, because I would leave you nothing but myne owne, though in value they fall short of all in this kinde, yet I persume they will be better prif’d by you for the Authors sake. The Lord bless you with grace heer, and crown you with glory heerafter, that I may meet you with rejoycing at that great day of appearing, which is the continuall prayer, of your affectionate mother,

A. B.

Meditations Divine and Morall.

I.

THERE is no object that we see; no action that we doe; no good that we inioy; no evil that we feele, or fear, but we may make some spirituall advantage of all: and he that makes such improvment is wise, as well as pious.

II.

MANY can speak well, but few can do well. We are better scholars in the Theory then the practique part, but he is a true Christian that is a proficient in both.

III.

YOUTH is the time of getting, middle age of improving, and old age of spending; a negligent youth is usually attended by an ignorant middle age, and both by an empty old age. He that hath nothing to seed on but vanity and lyes must needs lye down in the Bed of sorrow.

IV.

A SHIP that beares much saile, and little or no ballast, is easily overset; and that man, whose head hath great abilities, and his heart little or no grace, is in danger of foundering.

Abigail Adams

In January of 1780, amidst America’s War of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote to her twelve-year-old son, John Quincy Adams, urging him to follow his father, future American president John Adams, across the Atlantic to France in pursuit of a fine education. The letter, found in Noble Deeds of American Women: With Biographical Sketches of Some of the More Prominent (public domain), examines the foundation of character — a topic particularly fitting for the boy’s formative age, given it would be another four years until Adams would see her son again.

My dear Son

[…]

Some Author that I have met with compares a judicious traveler, to a river that increases its stream the farther it flows from its source, or to certain springs which running through rich veins of minerals improve their qualities as they pass along. It will be expected of you my son that as you are favourd with superiour advantages under the instructive Eye of a tender parent, that your improvements should bear some proportion to your advantages. Nothing is wanting with you, but attention, diligence and steady application. Nature has not been deficient.

These are times in which a Genious would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orater, if he had not been roused, kindled and enflamed by the Tyranny of Catiline, Millo, Verres and Mark Anthony. The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.

[…]

The strict and inviolable regard you have ever paid to truth, gives me pleasing hopes that you will not swerve from her dictates, but add justice, fortitude, and every Manly Virtue which can adorn a good citizen, do Honor to your Country, and render your parents supreemly happy, particuliarly your ever affectionate Mother,

AA

In another letter found in Posterity and dated December 1, 1872 — nearly half a century before women were legally allowed to vote in America and two centuries before the letters of the second wave of feminism — social justice pioneer and women’s rights champion Elizabeth Cady Stanton gives her twenty-year-old daughter Margaret, at the time a student at Vassar, essential advice on independence as the root of happiness:

I am so glad, dearest, to know that you are happy. Now, improve every hour and every opportunity, and fit yourself for a good teacher or professor, so that you can have money of your own and not be obliged to depend on any man for every breath you draw. The helpless dependence of women generally makes them the narrow, discontented beings so many are.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Pair these timeless words with the letters of the women who ushered in the second wave of modern feminism, raising a generation of sons and daughters with an eye on true equality.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.