This is How Maya Angelou Wants to be Remembered

By Jamilah King May 28, 2014

Among all of the heartfelt eulogies that will surely pop up on the Internet to remember the extraordinary life of Dr. Maya Angelou, perhaps the most important words we can read are her own.

In an interview with Armstrong Williams that was posted to YouTube in 2008, Angelou said the following:

I think every year has been challenging. Every day challenges. Some of the challenges were more public than others. Some so private I couldn’t even mention them in public. Some having to do with health. Some having to do with prosperity. Some having to do with romantic love. Some having to do with my family. The same issues that face and beleaguer every human being in the world and still do, have beleaguered me and still do. So that the challenge for me to meet you this morning, to get up, defy gravity; to stand erect and to remain erect, and to be absolutely present with you so that everything I know I have here in this chair with me now.

I don’t know what you’re going to ask me, so I’m challenged to be as honest as possible, as courageous as possible, and as kind as possible, that’s what I’m challenged [to do].

I was challenged as a young girl; at 7-years-old I was raped, and I told the name of the rapist to my family. The man was put in jail for one day and one night and released. Three or four days later, he was found dead. The police informed my grandmother that the man was found dead and that it seemed he had been kicked to death. They said that in front of me. That traumatized me so that I stopped speaking. I thought my voice had killed the man. And I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill anybody, randomly, and I stopped speaking for six years. So I learned to read and I read every book I could find. And I memorized. The challenge, now — I was growing up in a little village in Arkansas about the size of this room — and the challenge for a black child not to speak was no small matter. Because black people believed [that you] speak when you’re spoken to, especially when I was growing up.

But my grandmother, who was a traditional Southern black lady, my grandmother said, ‘Sister, mama don’t care about what these people say about you must be a moron, or you must be an idiot ’cause you can’t talk. Sister, mama don’t care. Mama know when you and the Good Lord get ready, you are going to be a teacher.’

…I’m strong. I have 55 doctorates. My last was from Columbia University. I teach all over the world. So, the pressure on me, the challenge on me, was always mitigated by love. That is to say it was softened by love because my grandmother loved me, my uncle loved me, and my brother loved me. I came through that. I have come through so many challenges because of love. 

And it’s with that love that Angelou created some of her most cherished work, including her iconic poem, "Phenomenal Woman." Here she is reciting it on Oprah "Super Soul Sunday."