DARE TO DREAM BIG!: From Child Victim to Extraordinary Renaissance Woman

Imagine This: You’re born in St. Louis, Missouri, but you spend your early years growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, in your grandmother’s home. Growing up in Stamps, you learn what it’s like to be a black girl in a world whose boundaries are set by whites. It means having to wear old hand-me-down clothes from white women, and it means not being permitted to be treated by a white doctor.

After living with your grandmother for several years, you and your brother return to St. Louis in 1935 to live with your mother who is working part time as a card dealer in a gambling parlor.

At age seven, you’re raped by your mother’s boyfriend, and your mother’s boyfriend is then murdered by your uncles. You feel so responsible for his murder that you vow never to speak in public again.

You carry out your vow and speak to no one except your brother. No one knows how to help you, so you’re sent back to Stamps. Even though you don’t speak in public for several years, you listen intently to everything that goes on around you. Many people think you’re retarded, but your grandmother never becomes discouraged and she never gives up on you.

When you’re ten years old, you meet Bertha Flowers, the most educated black woman in Stamps. You and Bertha not only read books together, but she also gives you a poetry book and tells you that “a person who truly loves poetry reads it aloud.” For the first time in years, you begin to believe in yourself again and you begin to speak.

By the time you graduate with honors from the eighth grade in 1940, people now begin to see you as precocious and eloquent. In 1941 you and your brother are sent to San Francisco to live with your mother again. In San Francisco, you attend George Washington High School and study dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School

You try many jobs, but none of them lasts long. While working in a restaurant, one of your jobs is to drive the owner’s prize fighters to their fights. But you’re quickly fired when you try to stop one of the fights because you don’t want to see your friend get hurt.

After working as a dancer for a while, you audition as a singer in 1952 and are hired at the Purple Onion, a famous San Francisco nightclub. Over the next twenty years you tour in a production of Porgy and Bess, you record the album called “Calyspo Lady,” you hone your skills as a writer, and you become involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

At age forty-two, your humorous autobiographical account about growing up in segregated Arkansas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is nominated for a National Book Award and you become the first African American woman to make the nonfiction best-seller lists.

You use both your positive and your negative life experiences in your poetry and at age forth-three, your first volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, is published and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Since 1981, you have been a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where you discovered your love for teaching. It is at Wake Forest that you realize that you’re “not a writer who teaches” but rather “a teacher who writes.” You write and deliver a poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Bill Cinton’s inauguration on January 20, 1993.

As a best-selling author, poet, educator, historian, actress, songwriter, playwright, dancer, singer, producer, director, and civil rights activist, you are recognized today as a Renaissance woman who is one of the great voices of contemporary literature.

“You might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever.”

Maya Angelou (1928-    )

 Excerpted from Dare to Dream!: 25 Extraordinary Lives by Sandra McLeod Humphrey

For More about Maya Angelou:

 Giving Back:  She established the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity in 2002 to address the medical needs of minorities.

 Did You Know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s birthday (April 4th), and for years afterward, she didn’t celebrate her birthday?

Something to Think about: How do you think Maya Angelou made the transition from victim to one of the most extraordinary women of her era?


Willoughby and I hope you enjoyed this week’s true story and will be back next week for another story to inspire you to DARE TO DREAM BIG!




68 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    Wow! A fascinating biography.
    Not speaking for five years? That must have been difficult.
    I’ve never even heard of this woman.
    I can’t wait to see your next inspirational bio.

  2. Bernard
    Bernard says:

    Thanks for your marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you’re a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back in the foreseeable future. I want to encourage yourself to continue your great posts, have a nice evening!

  3. Dorien Morin-van Dam
    Dorien Morin-van Dam says:

    I kept waiting to see if I could guess whom it was you were talking about and I didn’t until you named Maya. What an extraordinary and hard life she’s had and what a gift she gives back to all of us. Thanks for posting this wonderful story of her life.

  4. Stan Faryna
    Stan Faryna says:

    WOW! I love this blog post.

    One of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou is Still I Rise.

    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.

    Does my sassiness upset you?
    Why are you beset with gloom?
    ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
    Pumping in my living room.

    Just like moons and like suns,
    With the certainty of tides,
    Just like hopes springing high,
    Still I’ll rise.

    Did you want to see me broken?
    Bowed head and lowered eyes?
    Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
    Weakened by my soulful cries.

    Does my haughtiness offend you?
    Don’t you take it awful hard
    ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
    Diggin’ in my own back yard.

    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.

    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?

    Out of the huts of history’s shame
    I rise
    Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
    I rise
    I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
    Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
    Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
    I rise
    Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
    I rise
    Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
    I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
    I rise
    I rise
    I rise.

    Recently on my blog: Do you love strongly? And other social media DOHs http://wp.me/pbg0R-nY

  5. Knikkolette
    Knikkolette says:

    Sandra, if I would have had a teacher like you when I was in school, I would have actually liked history! You make it come alive with the way you tell your stories. I forget while reading these posts sometimes these are actual events that occurred and not fiction.

    God blessed you with an amazing talent of writing. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. Sherrie Koretke
    Sherrie Koretke says:

    Thank you for sharing Maya Angelou’s story! I learned a lot of about this elegant woman who over came so much. I was especially attracted to the part where you state she realized she was a teacher who wrote. That statement is more powerful than most people know.

  7. Martha Giffen
    Martha Giffen says:

    I love everything about Maya Angelou. Every single child should be required to read “Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She is an extraordinary woman and an American treasure. Her life is as colorful as any you will ever read about. Thanks for this post!

  8. Paul Morin
    Paul Morin says:

    Sandra, this is a great story about an amazing woman! I love the theme of this post, your books, your site and your writing in general. I’m so happy to have found your site and your work. Based on my own work and writing, I have recently come to the realization, that perhaps the biggest issue in our society, as it relates to behavioral problems, is poor self-esteem. I won’t bore you here with the details of how I came to that conclusion — it’s happened over the course of several decades — but I will tell you that the catalyst event was the response to a post I recently wrote about “Dealing With Difficult People”. So many of the stories that went through my mind as I wrote it and the anecdotes I later received back from readers all pointed back to one root cause: low self-esteem. So, it’s tremendous to see someone like yourself, with a site called “Kids Can Do It” and so many books and other publications of yours that reinforce that message. Keep up the great work! Paul

    • Sandra
      Sandra says:

      Thanks, Paul, and I agree about the importance of self-esteem, but it must be be well-grounded with deep roots, so that the individual can cope with frustrations, failures, etc. and still keep going. Not always easy to do! Thanks so much for your comment and please stop by again!

  9. James St. John
    James St. John says:

    All I can say is, Wow. Other than seeing Maya Angelou on television and enjoying her wit and candor, I knew nothing of her life. I absolutely love stories of people who find their voice after suffering. There are those who choose to remain quiet, a statistic, a sad commentary on the evils of this world. Then there are those, like Maya Angelou, who choose to overcome and establish themselves as a voice crying in the wilderness. Thanks for sharing her story.

    • Sandra
      Sandra says:

      I love stories like this too–inspiring stories of people who overcome obstacles, meet their challenges, and never give up! Thanks for your comment and please stop by again!

  10. Efrat
    Efrat says:

    Thank you for this post. I will defiantly keep coming back for more.
    I’ve read some of Maya Angelou poems but I didn’t know much about her life. Right now I just want to go and discover more about her story.

  11. Christine
    Christine says:

    Great post and a wonderful inspiration to all. The poem “I Rise” is actually a common thread in the movie Beauty Shop starring Queen Latifah and Keshia Knight Pullian (remember Rudy from the Cosby Show?). The poem struck me then. I am glad now to know the story behind the poet. Beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Sandra
      Sandra says:

      I’ve never seen the movie Beauty Shop, but I think I may just have rent it now. That’s what’s so great about blogging–we all come away knowing so much more than we did! Thanks for your comment and please stop by again!

  12. Isra
    Isra says:

    So beautifully written Sandra! It made me teary eyed..I was an English major in college and she was one of my heroes. I know why the cage bird sings is an emotionally charged novel I first read in high school. You’ve made me want to go at it to my kindle now. Will be back!

    • Sandra
      Sandra says:

      I know what you mean–I wish there were more time to read and reread some of these wonderful works. Thanks so much for your comment and I hope you do stop by again!

  13. O. Warfield
    O. Warfield says:

    Sandy. All of them are good but this one really hit home. You have to be a wonderful teacher. Wish I’d had someone like you when I was growing up. Stans poem by Maya fit in just right too.

    See ya next week for sure.

    O. Warfield

  14. Samantha Bangayan
    Samantha Bangayan says:

    Wow, Sandy! What an absolutely amazing woman! I only knew Maya Angelou for her inspirational books, but I had no idea that she had such a powerful life story. Thanks so much for sharing her rich life experiences! You are such a talented writer, Sandy — you really made her story come alive! =)

  15. Dominic Karren
    Dominic Karren says:

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to see a great blog like this one these days..

  16. Tania
    Tania says:

    I love the theme of your blog. The perfect spot for anyone, children or adults, to gain some perspective and be inspired when the odds are stacked up as high as the eye can see. Although I knew of Maya Angelou’s writing, strength and eloquence, I did not know her story. Thank you for posting.


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  1. Thanks for sharing this….

    Hi, I would like to say cheers for blogging about this, I found the blog to be exciting, I look forward to reading more, it must take a lot of time to run a site like this….

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