After reading numerous articles, books and internet posts regarding the impact of Dr. Maya Angelou, I couldn’t’ help but reflect on the elements of her life that we can learn from.
Alvin Ailey, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. Any one of these individuals would have made the “I wish this famous person was one of my friend” list, but all of these and let’s not forget Oprah. Oprah makes everyone’s imaginary best friend list. As the old saying goes, “in order to get a friend you have to be a friend.” So we must assume that Maya Angelou was a phenomenal friend because she managed to remain in the company of many people that have had a significant impact on the world. This all suggests that she had an energy that drew others to her.
Her past vocations include a streetcar conductor, business manager of prostitutes, cook, singer, dancer, university administrator, newspaper editor, producer, market researcher, activist, writer, poet, teacher, composer and actor. That’s a very long list of jobs for only an 86 year time frame. What is fascinating about Maya Angelou is that she was never afraid to take a chance at love and life. She changed jobs based on the circumstance and wasn’t afraid to take on new and different titles. She was married twice and lived in various parts of the world. During those times she was courageous in her zest for love, life and people with various backgrounds.
We all know that she was raped at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend. After telling her brother, her extended family subsequently learned of the rape. Shortly thereafter that man that raped her was beaten to death. As a result, a young Maya felt as though her voice had killed him. Thus, she decided not to speak for the next 5 years. However, after having been influenced by a teacher and friend of the family, she was introduced to many great pieces of literature. She later turned this devastating time of her life into her first autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The work highlights her quest for independence, dignity, self-love and identity. We’ve all encountered trauma in our lives, but it is how we rebound from that trauma that defines us.
Of course her most famous mentee is Oprah Winfrey. But what about the countless lives that she touched over the years? Some of which we may never know who they are. Maya Angelou has mentored us all indirectly as a result of her influence on Oprah Winfrey, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil, Brene Brown and countless other entities that have enlightened us through the years. Her works are often used in college and graduate programs to initiate discourse on race and privilege. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is a pivotal element in the Black feminist writings because it was one of the first pieces to give voice to the experience of both being African American and being a woman. As a result of the significance of her works, Maya Angelou will continue to mentor generations forever.
In many cultural traditions, it is crucial that we honor our ancestors. Let’s honor Maya Angelou by treasuring our friendships, living life to the fullest, turning our trauma into greatness and participating in mentoring. Either serve as a mentor to someone in your community or reach out to someone that you admire and let them know that you would for like them to serve as your mentor. ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give’ and we all agree that Maya. Angelou has taught us well.
Maya Angelou image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 30 May 2014