Maya Angelou made her mark in literary history by writing the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman: her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
But that wasn’t her only first — or even her first one.
Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Angelou had a traumatic childhood after her family moved to Arkansas. There, she faced discrimination — and was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven. As retaliation, her uncles killed her perpetrator, scarring the young girl to the point that she didn’t speak for about five years.
Eventually, she moved out west and started carving out her own path — becoming the first African American cable car conductor in San Francisco in the 1940s. The next decade, she found success as a performer, starring in a touring production of Porgy and Bess, as well as off-Broadway’s Calypso Heat Wave in 1957 and releasing an album Miss Calypso the same year.
While she got a Tony nomination for the play Look Away in 1973 and Emmy nomination for the TV miniseries Roots in 1977, it was her writing that helped her pave even more firsts.
Her bestseller about her early life went on set a record for being on the New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list for two years, and when her screenplay for Georgia, Georgia was turned into a movie in 1972, she also became the first African American woman to have her screenplay produced.
The renaissance woman continued evolving her artistic talents by focusing on poetry, even reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration — the first inaugural recitation since 1961.
Throughout her many careers, she was actively involved with the civil rights movement, serving as the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference where she met Martin Luther King Jr. and later worked with Macolm X to set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity when she lived in Africa.
Paving so many firsts is simply proof of Angelou’s ability to break down barriers in every field she pursued. By the time she died on May 28, 2014, she had written a total of 36 books — including cookbooks — and her gift for crafting words has forever left us with some of the most inspirational and memorable quotes of our time.
On attitude: “If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude.”
On womanhood: “I am a Woman/Phenomenally./Phenomenal Woman,/that's me.”
On control: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
On courage: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”
On making an impression: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
On possibilities: “Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings.”
On potential: “One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
On readiness: “I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”
On freedom: “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill/of things unknown but longed for still/and his tune is heard on the distant hill/for the caged birds sings of freedom.”
On forgiveness: “It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
On reciprocity: “Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.”
On caring for others: “If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.”
On spreading positivity: "Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."
On jealousy: “It must be remembered, however, that jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savour, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”
On persistence: “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”
On working: “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”
On our influences: “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it's all there. Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”
On looking inward: "Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God."
On her life mission: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”