Who Is Maya Angelou? How One 'Phenomenal Woman' Shaped Generation After Generation

by Katie Gonzalez

Maya Angelou has been heralded as the voice of a generation — and not just for the books and poems she contributed to our high school required reading lists, or the Pinterest "Words of Inspiration" boards that are littered with her poignant life musings.

Although Maya Angelou died today at the age of 86, she'll always be remembered for the life she led. A true Renaissance woman, Angelou was a renowned poet, author and civil rights activist who inspired others through her actions and ability to emerge from the hardships she faced with a certain grace and desire to keep going on.

Perhaps best known for her autobiographical "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," Angelou was a career woman for over 50 years, having published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, numerous volumes of poetry, as well as various plays, movies and TV shows.

But Angelou’s accomplishments can't be entirely captured in a compilation of quotes or detailed obituary.

Rather, her legacy will be best remembered in all of us — the people who were changed by her words, inspired to do better by her own example and committed to their causes because Angelou was so resolute in hers.

We all owe a lot to Maya Angelou because her presence on this earth was so impactful. Today, we want to commemorate her by sharing the ways she’s changed this generation through the lessons we’ve learned from her own wonderful life.

A Career Can’t Be Defined By One Word

Angelou has earned many titles through her illustrious career. From San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor, to prolific author, to cast member in the opera "Porgy and Bess," to civil rights activist alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Angelou proves that people can’t be put in a box.

It may seem daunting to leave a first job, a steady paycheck or a comfortable city to pursue something new, but Angelou obviously got it right when she realized that jumping from passion to passion leads not only to personal happiness, but to professional success.

Do Something That Angers People When You Know It's Right

Although "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" was listed by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential books since 1923, it also ranks on the top-10 list of books attempted to be banned from US libraries and institutions.

Published in 1969, the frank depiction of racism and sexuality presented in this autobiography upset many people, but Angelou remained steadfast in her resolve to continue to relay the social happenings of the times honestly, despite any unpopularity she earned.

Now, in an era of increased social media channels in which we can be scrutinized for every 140-character comment, it's easy to speak our minds, but even easier to be scared into silence for fear of a backlash from all our Facebook "friends."

But Angelou's example imparts on us that even though one particular view may not be so well-received at the time, it's still right to expose that way of thinking.

It's honorable to speak out for what you believe is right, even when the environment may not be so receptive at the time — you can help influence the way people think in the future.

Let Yourself Be Shaped By Those Bad Experiences

Angelou has been very honest about the sexual abuse she, unfortunately, endured very early in her life. She was only 7 years old when she was sexually molested and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and was afraid and embarrassed to speak out for a very long time.

When she finally confided in family members, her uncle then killed her attacker; Angelou felt responsible for the lost life of a person, despite his guilt. Her abuse also contributed to troubles she experienced later in life, working as a madam for lesbian prostitutes and as a table dancer.

Through this horrific experience, however, Angelou said she learned to forgive and to love herself once again.

The painful things she went through and the bad things she did taught her important lessons about herself, and helped her become a stronger person in their aftermath.

For many victims of abuse or other types of hardships, these situations can seem impossible and entirely hopeless. But Angelou reminds us that we can overcome it, and, even more, we can grow from it.

As Angelou said, a bad experience is "bad but it’s also good, and it's up to each one of us to make it better. Every one of us. We deserve our future."

Never Stop Learning

Leaving school and entering the real world can be taxing, and for Angelou, a former high school dropout who had her first child at just 17, that probably proved even more so.

But Angelou remained committed to learning throughout her life, and not just by reading the words of others. Instead, Angelou traveled and lived so that she could take in other experiences and cultures.

Her adventures abroad led her to mastery in over five languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti.

Angelou’s own stories of a woman who wasn’t afraid to pick up her life and start all over again remind us that if we keep experiencing and opening ourselves up as individuals, the things we learn about the world and about ourselves will ensure that we make the most of every situation.

Be Proud of Who You Are

Who was Maya Angelou?

She assumed many different titles through her lifetime — victim, professor, mother, dancer, editor, poet, three-time Grammy Award winner, journalist, wife, film director, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, activist and advocate, to name a few.

But perhaps we should let Angelou speak for herself here:

"I am a Woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman, that's me."

Maya Angelou was a phenomenal person, because she was proud of who she was and the work she did. Those are words I think we should all strive to live by, in honor of Angelou.

Photo Credit: Getty Images