Digital First Media Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images
Jameelah Nasheed
April 04, 2019 6:22 am

I stepped away from my desk for a few minutes and returned to two text messages. One from my older brother and the other from my best friend, Amanda. Both messages read, “Are you ok?” My heart dropped when they told me Dr. Maya Angelou had died.

This was in 2014. My brother has known me my entire life, and Amanda has known me since I was 10 years old. They knew that my relationship with Dr. Angelou’s words was deep, consistent, and life-changing. They were also the only people who knew I had impulsively gotten a hidden tattoo that read “still I rise” days before her death.

Her words have gotten me through every confusing chapter of life: the loss of loved ones; end of relationships; career confusion; and more. I began reading her autobiographies in 7th grade. The fact that she triumphed in spite of her tumultuous journey has been a beacon of hope and inspiration for me (and many other young girls and women).

She was a master at the art of living her life. Before writing her groundbreaking work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she had worked as a cook, a waitress, a madam, a sex worker, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, and an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt. She’s done it all, and along the way, she left us a guide to living and loving unlike anyone else.

On what would have been Dr. Angelou’s 91st birthday, we’re soaking in some of her many lessons.

“I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.”

Dr. Angelou has taught us—through her life and her words—the importance of learning to love and accept our version of beauty and the complexity of womanhood. She frequently spoke of the power of femininity and sexuality, telling us that they should be celebrated. She has shown us that to be a woman is to be many things, and that we can be whomever we feel we are—all at once and unapologetically.

 “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.” 

Be kind to people. Plain and simple. That will be your legacy.

“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.”

Live life to the fullest. Whatever that may look like for you.

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Trust the journey. The journey is just as important—if not more important—than the destination. It’s in those trials and tribulations that we learn who we are. Dr. Angelou encourages us to keep “getting back up” each time we fall.

“Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” 

A challenging yet necessary reminder to continue to love…

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” 

…but don’t be a fool.

“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” 

As terrifying as it might be, don’t be afraid to seek fulfillment. As women, we deserve to have all sides of ourselves nurtured.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

Let it out! This is perhaps one of the most freeing lessons I’ve learned from Dr. Angelou. Holding in your truth doesn’t serve anyone—in fact, it does more harm than anything. What if Dr. Angelou had held her story in? She never would have touched the many lives that she did. All of us have a story. Let it out—you never know who else may benefit from hearing it.

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