Lessons from Maya Angelou: Listen up, everyone!

Every person will leave a legacy. Some will leave money or property, some will leave heirlooms or jewelry, others will leave fond memories and happy thoughts. A lucky few will leave all of the above. Maya Angelou was one of those extraordinary people to leave a legacy to the world. Her “world” legacy is one of wisdom, strength, and courage.

I personally have received a great inheritance from Dr. Angelou: life lessons from a great and true woman who led by example and “stood her ground” in pursuing equality, tolerance, and peace. I have labeled these wisdoms as my "Angelou Lessons.”

My Angelou Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to dance!

Yes, Maya Angelou was a dancer who traveled throughout Europe performing with an African American dance troupe. Yes, she worked with the renowned Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham. No, I’m not talking about her experience as a dancer.

My Angelou lesson is that I should not be afraid to express myself in whatever way feels natural or “just right” to me. Not to be afraid of expressing myself. Maya Angelou expressed herself in many different, unique, and surprising ways. She was the first African American woman to have a screenplay produced. She changed the “official” structure of the autobiography into a genre in which she could tell her story with truth and passion. I imagine that she was repeatedly told “you can’t do that!” But she did. She knew no limits to expressing herself.

She has taught me to express myself whether it is in writing, speaking, or another form. I learned that I should not be afraid to dance!

My Angelou Lesson #2: Speak Up!

Dr. Angelou was one of the most expressive people of the twentieth century! She said what needed to be said. Or she wrote it. Or sang it. But she was not afraid to express herself.

Yes, she wrote 7 autobiographies and numerous stories, poems, and essays. She even wrote a screenplay. But she was more than a prolific writer; she produced more than just quantity. She produced quality. She gave so much of herself in every autobiography and essay. She expressed things that needed to be expressed. In the past, it was not acceptable for a woman to discuss sexual abuse. But she told the story. It needed to be told. It needed to be expressed. And it freed others to tell their experiences.

Maya Angelou expressed more than her personal experiences. She also shared wisdoms and insights that encouraged personal reflection and growth. As an eminently quotable sage-like figure, she spoke out against injustice, intolerance, and hatred. She also reminded me (and many others) of the “oneness” of all people. She reminded us that we have more similarities than differences but also that our differences make us unique and special.

There are so many issues that Dr. Angelou spoke about but the important point is that she had the courage to say what needed to be said. Her courage gave others the courage to say what needed to be said, whether it was personal stories or personal views.

As a writer, she encouraged me to express myself through the written word, even if my mother is the only person who ultimately reads it! But she has also given me the creative license to express myself in so many different ways. She has shown that freedom to all of us: the freedom to speak your mind.

My Angelou Lesson #3: Be Yourself!

During a time when people felt insecure because of their gender, race, economic status or other characteristic, she helped me to feel that it was okay to be exactly who I am.

Maya Angelou was no “cookie cutter” writer, dancer, or African American woman! Many of her goals were not the average goals for a person from such humble beginnings. She did not “fit” into any mold. Yet she did not wait for others to validate her goals, dreams, or herself. She carried those “burdens” herself and decided that she had to love and accept herself.

Her ability to love and accept herself taught me the same lesson. I also did not feel that I “fit in” anywhere. But she taught me that I did not need to look outside of myself for love and validation. I only needed to know in my heart that everyone—including myself!--was put on this planet for a reason.  Her ability to be herself set the example for people around the world that it was okay to be oneself.

My Angelou Lesson #4: Accept no limits!

A writer is a writer, right? A dancer only dances, right? A woman has to accept her limitations, African Americans can expect to struggle, and people have to accept the roles that are written for them, right? Wrong!

Maya Angelou taught me that I don’t have to accept limitations from society, family, friends, or most importantly, myself. She certainly taught by example. Yes, she was a writer and author. Many people would limit that her contribution to writing. But she did not accept that kind of limitation. She held many different roles and had many different experiences and jobs. She didn’t accept external limitations and she questioned her internal ones.

Her courage created the life of her dreams and is an enduring lesson that I struggle to live every day. This important Angelou Lesson continues to open up opportunities for me on every level. I am reminded of her courage and this lesson on a daily basis.

My Angelou Lesson #5: Be Courageous!

This is probably the most important of all the lessons. Without courage, the other lessons would not be possible.

Maya Angelou was a true warrior, filled with courage and compassion. She exhibited her courage throughout her life, including reporting the sexual abuse, working in Cairo and Ghana, befriending Malcolm X, raising her son while pursuing her dream as a dancer, and many other experiences and challenges, great and small. Reading her story was a “call to arms” to wake up and claim my life!

I am sure that some of her choices invoked fear and doubt. But everyone experiences those feelings at times. Her courage came in “going for it” anyway. I am filled with chagrin when I think of the challenges that I shrunk away from or when I avoided the road less traveled. However, I also refuse to indulge those negative feelings.

My Angelou Lesson” is have the courage to go towards my dreams and pursue my goals, to realize that fear is not a warning sign that I’m making a wrong turn, but rather a triumphant flag that I am growing stronger and more courageous as I move towards my dreams.

Conclusion

Maya Angelou has given her “Angelou Lessons” to me and to this world. These are five lessons that I learned though I know that many other lessons are “out there” for me to grasp and learn. I can use them every day.

I will remember her example to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. With her lessons and in her memory, I can work towards the life of my dreams in a courageous way. I can enjoy and love who I am and work to make the world a better place. And hope to make Dr. Angelou proud!

Thank you and rest in peace, Auntie.