Maya Angelou, who passed away at age 86 on Wednesday, was a teacher. In the literal sense, the renowned poet taught American Studies at Wake Forest University for more than 30 years. But in a more metaphorical sense, she was the beloved teacher of a nation. She modeled courage in the face of adversity, preached tolerance for differences and proudly accepted herself, flaws and all.
“We are all teachers whether we know it or not,” Dr. Angelou said earlier this year. “I used to think I was a writer who could teach but I’ve found in the last 15 years I am a teacher who can write.”
Here are six lessons we have learned from Maya Angelou.
Angelou taught American Studies at Wake Forest University for decades, and served as a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles before that. She imparted to her students not just cookie-cutter lessons about the country’s past, but made sure to emphasize the experiences of people so often left out of textbooks - poor people, minorities and women. In the mid-1960s, Angelou wrote a 10-part television series about African culture in the United States.
"You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there,” she once said. “Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive."
Angelou served as a vocal civil rights advocate. She was friends with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and even lived in Ghana for a time with other African-Americans who felt unwanted in the United States. She returned to write proudly about her heritage. In her later years, Angelou spoke in favor of tolerance for gays and lesbians, reportedly calling New York state senators to urge them to support marriage equality.
Her poem, “And Still I Rise,” has served as something of an anthem for not only African-Americans, but other groups facing oppression, as well:
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Angelou had a tough upbringing and was raised mostly by her grandmother in the segregated South. The woman who would later be called the “people’s poet” stopped speaking for years as a child after blaming herself for the death of her rapist. She later chronicled her childhood and adolescence in the beloved “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves,” she has commented. “Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”
4. Respect for women
Angelou has served as a mentor for women like Oprah, and broken barriers for female artists and writers with her frank, unapologetic prose. She was even San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car driver and lent her name to a women’s health center in Winston-Salem, where she lived. But she’s also penned works about the sometimes-mundane tasks of motherhood and spoken about her struggles as a young, unwed parent. Angelou wrote in “Phenomenal Woman,” a fierce defense of strong women and one of her most popular works:
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Angelou grew up hearing stories and learning traditions from her grandmother and other elders in her family. She has lamented the negative impacts of technology and urged young people to learn from the mistakes of those who have lived more life than them.
“The youngsters don’t have to make all the mistakes again,” Angelou said.
Angelou overcame more obstacles than most people face in a lifetime partially because of her tenacity and courage. She chronicled some of those struggles - suffering rape and neglect, among them - in one of her earlier works, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She would go on to read an original poem in front of thousands of people at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration. She penned poems, television series and books that were frank and sometimes made people uncomfortable, and she did so proudly and with grace.
"It's the most important of all of the virtues because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently," Angelou said. "You can be anything erratically. You can be kind or true or fair or generous and blah, blah. But to be that thing time after time, you have to have courage."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.