- The needs of a society determine its ethics.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969); often misquoted as "The needs of society determine its ethics", and with less context than the full statement: "The needs of a society determine its ethics, and in the Black American ghettos the hero is that man who is offered only the crumbs from his country's table but by ingenuity and courage is able to take for himself a Lucullan feast." The title of Angelou's book comes from the poem "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
- You don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking.
- Quoting her mother's statement after her son's birth, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
- At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.
- I believe most plain girls are virtuous because of the scarcity of opportunity to be otherwise.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Ch. 35
- Children's talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives.
- I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me "I love you." … There is an African saying which is: "Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."
- The Distinguished Annie Clark Tanner Lecture, 16th-annual Families Alive Conference, Weber State University, May 8, 1997 - Full text online at weber.edu
- Self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable.
- Gather Together in My Name (1974), p. 17.
- A bizarre sensation pervades a relationship of pretense. No truth seems true. A simple morning's greeting and response appear loaded with innuendo and fraught with implications. ... Each nicety becomes more sterile and each withdrawal more permanent.
- Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas (1976), chapter 5.
- Without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
- As quoted in USA Today (5 March 1988)
- 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.
- As quoted in Diversity : Leaders Not Labels (2006) by Stedman Graham, p. 224
- You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
- As quoted in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989) by Jeffrey M. Elliot
- Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
- Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993) p. 12.
- There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.
- As quoted in The Truth in Words (2005) by Neal Zero
- I am capable of what every other human is capable of. This is one of the great lessons of war and life.
- As quoted in Goal Mapping : How to Turn Your Dreams into Realities (2006) by Brian Mayne, p. 84
- My dear, when people show you who they are, why don't you believe them? Why must you be shown 29 times before you can see who they really are? Why can't you get it the first time?
- You did in your twenties what you knew how to do, and when you knew better you did better. And you should not be judged for the person that you were, but for the person that you're trying to be and the woman that you are now.
- As quoted by Oprah Winfrey.
- All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semiliterate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open.
- As quoted in Interview: How Libraries Changed Maya Angelou's Life, by Angela Montefinise, October 29, 2010
- 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.
- Shared on her Facebook page, July 4, 2011
And Still I Rise (1978)
- You were a precious pearl
How I loved to see you shine,
You were the perfect girl.
And you were mine.
For a time.
For a time.
Just for a time.
- "Just for a Time"
- You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
- "Still I Rise" - Full text online at poets.org
- You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
- "Still I Rise"
- Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
- "Still I Rise"
- 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.
- "Still I Rise"
- 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.
- "Still I Rise"
- I went to sleep last night
And I arose with the dawn,
I know that there are others
Who're still sleeping on,
They've gone away,
You've let me stay,
I want to thank You.
- "Thank You, Lord"
I Shall Not Be Moved (1990)
- Glory falls around us
as we sob
a dirge of
desolation on the Cross
and hatred is the ballast of
- which lies upon our necks
- "Glory Falls"
- We grow despite the
horror that we feed
upon our own
- "Glory Falls"
- Petulant priests, greedy
centurions, and one million
incensed gestures stand
between your love and me.
Visit us again, Savior.
Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
I have need of a friend.
There is one and only one
who will give the air
from his failing lungs
for my body's mend.
And that one is my love.
- "Many and More"
Paris Review Interview (1990)
- Issue 116, Interviewed by George Plimpton
- Nathaniel Hawthorne says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.
- I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, No. No, I’m finished. Bye. And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.
- Years ago I read a man named Machado de Assis who wrote a book called Dom Casmurro. Machado de Assis is a South American writer — black father, Portuguese mother — writing in 1865, say. I thought the book was very nice. Then I went back and read the book and said, Hmm. I didn’t realize all that was in that book. Then I read it again, and again, and I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That’s when I decided to write.
- Yes. When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness.
A Brave and Startling Truth (1995)
- Written for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations
- We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
- If we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls.
- Love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
A Brave and Startling Truth.
- It is possible and imperative that we discover
A brave and startling truth.
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
We Had Him (2009)
- A poetic tribute to Michael Jackson - Full text online at official site - Poem and video at MTV (recited by Queen Latifah )
- Though we are many, each of us is achingly alone, piercingly alone.
Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us and we did have him.
He came to us from the creator, trailing creativity in abundance.
Despite the anguish, his life was sheathed in mother love, family love, and survived and did more than that.
He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style. We had him whether we know who he was or did not know, he was ours and we were his.
- We are missing Michael.
But we do know we had him, and we are the world.
- . (2011-10-26). "When people show you who they are, believe them" Oprah's Lifeclass.Season 1.Episode 13. Oprah Winfrey Network.
- . (1997-06-18). "Book club finale" The Oprah Winfrey Show.
- . (1994-11-02). "What would you save in a fire?" The Oprah Winfrey Show.
- Josh Hicks (7 April 2015). Postal Service releases Maya Angelou stamp with quote from another author. Washington Post. Retrieved on 9 April 2015.