Maya Angelou never failed to use the power of her expert words to truthfully reflect on the sorrows and celebrations of the human experience during a 50-year career that culminated in three Grammys, one Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Pulitzer nomination, and 36 books.
Oprah said of Angelou, “The world knows her as a poet, but at the heart of her, she was a teacher.” “‘Teach what you’ve learned. One of my favorite lessons from her is ‘When you get, give.’
Angelou, who died in 2014 at the age of 86, was Lady O’s “mentor, mother/sister, and friend,” and spent her life teaching society via innumerable poems, essays, and memoirs, boldly exposing her many difficulties and tribulations—but also triumphs—as a Black woman in America. But, like Oprah, Angelou’s candor inspired many individuals to keep hope alive even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
Angelou has gifted us with enough expertly crafted literature to last a lifetime, from her deep I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to the lyrical And Still I Rise. We limited her broad body of work down to the ten most essential books and poems in her repertory, despite the fact that it was (very) tough. But don’t worry: we’ve provided a full list of her accomplishments because they all deserve to be recognized.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
Angelou released her first book with the help of a friend and fellow landmark writer, James Baldwin. She chronicles her early experiences with abuse and prejudice, as well as how the contrasted independence of her teens enabled her to discover resilience in the face of despair. Her autobiography is likely her most well-known book, having been named a “All-Time 100 Nonfiction Book” by Time magazine.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Baldwin observed of Angelou’s book, “liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou faces her own existence with such a compelling wonder, such a dazzling dignity.”
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie (1971)
Angelou uses 38 different lyrical titles as societal criticism in her first collection of poetry, in which she addresses themes of love, racism, and nostalgia. Her work garnered her a Pulitzer Prize nomination for poems such as They Went Home, Times-Square-Shoe-Shine-Composition, and No Loser, Now Weeper.
Gather Together in My Name (1974)
Angelou tells readers about her life after WWII in her follow-up to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She’s a teen mother with a young boy named Clyde, and she’s striving to provide for him while bouncing from job to job and in and out of relationships. It’s the story of a young lady attempting to find herself in the face of parental responsibilities, while the allure of drugs and crime threatens to lead her life down a path she doesn’t want to go down.
And Still I Rise (1978)
This anthology of poetry celebrates everything from dreams and vibrant Saturday nights to freedom and the sounds of the South, and contains one of Angelou’s most praised pieces, Phenomenal Woman. Angelou praises life—the good and bad that comes with it—through an explosive rhythm and writing prowess.
The Heart of a Woman (1981)
Angelou goes to New York City with her son in her fourth memoir, soon immersing herself in the rich artistic scene of the city’s Black creatives. After reading her work at the Harlem Writer’s Guild, she learns her genuine affinity for the written word. Simultaneously, she falls in love with a man who shows her that life is bigger than the city.
On the Pulse of Morning (1993)
On the Pulse of Morning, which was read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration on public television in January 1993, brought a message of togetherness and equality to countless Americans in what the president called a “electrifying reading.” Angelou’s characteristic lyrical prose was performed on a national platform at the momentous event.
“In my work, in everything I do,” she told the L.A. Times in 1993, “I aim to communicate that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to utilize that assertion to break down the walls we build between ourselves because we are different.”
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993)
Angelou published her first book of short essays soon after her acclaimed poetry recital at the inauguration. You’ll be treated to her ideas on issues like style, death, racism, and self-love, as well as how she believes the power of spirituality can help lead and fulfill your life, all written in lyrical prose.
Phenomenal Woman (1995)
Though every book on this list should be considered required reading, reading this poetry collection during National Women’s History Month would be especially poignant. It contains four of Angelou’s most well-known works: Phenomenal Woman, Still I Rise, Weekend Glory, and Our Grandmothers, with each poem focusing on female empowerment.
Letter to My Daughter (2008)
Angelou speaks to the daughter she never had in a series of honest articles, effectively opening up to the millions of readers she has amassed over the years. She gives a lesson on what it means to learn to be fulfilled despite life’s curveballs via stories of her chaotic youth, parenthood, loss, and personal growth.
Mom & Me & Mom (2013)
Angelou writes about her tight relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, who sent her away to live with her grandmother when she was three years old for the first time in all of her memoirs. They were reunited ten years later, but the writer is still struggling to overcome her feelings of desertion and animosity toward her mother as she and Baxter strive to mend their relationship.