05/28/2014 02:33 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

When I Learned Why the Caged Bird Sings


When I was 9 years-old, I read Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for the first time. That may seem like heavy reading for a 9-year-old, and it was, but my mum trusted that I would get something out of it. (For context, I also read The Color Purple when I was 9 and survived perfectly). I don't think she or I will ever truly be able to measure the impact that book had on me. I then continued to read, all the way through her next six autobiographies. There were of course things I didn't understand, situations I couldn't interpret and subtitles that were lost on me, but in the thread of truly great writing, that didn't matter. I still understood what I was being given, the message, and that is an incredibly rare thing.

Everyone says that in order to write something worth reading, you must "write what you know." Whether or not I fully agree with that, there is not a more powerful argument for it that Maya Angelou. In my life, all 16 years of it, I don't think what anything has ever captured me like what Mrs. Angelou knew. Writing is one of the most powerful way to share wisdom, as a 9-year-old, I felt her life lessons coming to me. Stand up for what you believe in, no matter how hard it may be, or how much it may hurt you now. Sometimes, people aren't there for you, and you have to recognize that. Speak your mind, because you may not get another opportunity. Don't scorn people or their profession, because those are usually the people who will help you when you're down. Your life is yours alone to lead, and if you don't take that and do something amazing, it's on you. No one can make you less of yourself.

Maya Angelou exposed me to real grown-up poetry for the first time. Up to that point, my life had been full with Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, who are fantastically talented poets, but not exactly life lesson givers. There were words I didn't know, so I learned them. Sometimes, I didn't grasp the metaphors, and that was perfectly fine. I reread them at 12 and understood. I think that is what is so amazing about writing and people who do it well: they give a girl born in California in 1997 the ability to comprehend some of the immense wisdom of a woman born in the midst of Deep South racism in 1928, whose life touched so many of history's greatest moments, and survived so many of her own. The longer you think about it, the greater it is.

Today, Maya Angelou died at the age of 86. She was immensely accomplished, and did far more with her life than you could imagine. I will never have the chance to tell her what her books meant to 9-year-old Justina, and how I still feel the resonance from that now, but it's okay. I will settle for telling all of you, in the hopes that you will be inspired to learn some of Mrs. Angelou's lessons. Also, if you never read the book, you'll never know why caged birds sing.