Maya Angelou: Liberated by Knowledge
As an author, poet and speaker, Maya Angelou has shined a light on a world of prejudice, injustice and poverty unfamiliar to many Americans. Through a series of six autobiographies, including the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1970, Angelou inspired readers with her own transformation from victim of racism to empowered young woman. Through writing and speaking to audiences around the globe, she continues to admonish people to reach their fullest potential.
“I think always the moments which challenge you most are probably the ones which have the greatest lifetime importance,” she says.
Following a childhood of struggle and sorrow, including rape at the age of 7, Angelou was an unmarried 17-year-old when she gave birth to a son. But motherhood was the impetus for achievement.
“To improve myself and him and his life, I studied. I began to really be careful about what I was doing and how well I was doing it. I had always been a reader—I just became a deeper reader. I made a bee path to the libraries. I educated myself because I wanted him to have some answers,” she says. “That was the greatest single impact on my life.”
Angelou traveled the world, acted, danced, sang, composed music and wrote plays. She became fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic and West African Fanti. She worked with civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Angelou’s self-directed education helped her see beyond the hatred and prejudice that could have shaped her worldview. “In so many ways it helped me to know that the world did not end at my front door, nor at the borderline of my state, nor even at the United States—and that human beings are more alike than we are unalike,” she says. “All of that liberated me from some of the ignorance that can make a person mean and cruel and prejudiced and stupid. Education has helped me understand that this is my world, but no more mine than yours.”
That knowledge helped Angelou find her place in the world—which is anywhere she wants to be. “Being a human gave me the right to look for the larger life, the biggest life a human being can have. That I was black or 6-feet tall or female or poor growing up had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a human being,” she says. “There’s nobody beneath me and nobody above me on the rate of being a human being.
“Success is liberation. I’m free from the ties with which ignorance binds us. I’m free from that. I don’t dislike any group of people. I can be proud of the action of a stranger. I can be happy for the success of a person I’ve never shaken hands with. I’m free.”
Today, Angelou, 81, is a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. Though she never graduated from college, she holds 30 honorary degrees and takes pride in being called “Dr. Angelou.” Now working on a cookbook, she recently wrote lyrics to accompany music by Michael Feinstein.
Angelou says there is much she wants to do. Asked what she could possibly add to her brimming list of accomplishments, “Everything!” she responds heartily. “I can hardly sleep.”