Never a Caged Bird: Maya Angelou, a Protagonist

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
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

Maya Angelou, “A Brave and Startling Truth”

Maya Angelou told us what made life worth living.

She wrote it down for us in her most notable work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. However, it would be a disservice to remember Angelou only as a poet. Here was a woman who essentially lived her life on stage – she was a singer, a dancer, a creator, and an activist.

Her life was bold and lyrical.

Of course, that’s to be expected when one is an Assertive Protagonist (ENFJ-A).

Before we dig deeper into her personality, let’s look at a timeline of the most influential events in her life.

A Brief History

  • In 1928, Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou was born to parents who had a fiery relationship. Their relationship soon fell apart, and they separated when she was three years old.
  • Angelou and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother, Annie Henderson, in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas. In this town, the black and white populations kept apart. Angelou later recalled:

    “In Stamps, the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for, and the ragged against the well dressed.”

  • Angelou was raised up by her grandmother, “Momma,” who abided by faith, community, and a deep love for her family.
  • When she was seven years old, during a stay with her mother in St. Louis, Angelou was deeply traumatized by an assault by her mother’s boyfriend. The man spent a short time in jail but was later found dead, presumably killed by Angelou’s uncles.
  • Angelou, terrified that it had been her voice that killed the man, refused to speak for the next five years.
  • Though she did not speak, Angelou continued to read.

    “To show you... how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, fifty sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry – never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling – I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.”

  • At 13 years old, Angelou was finally encouraged by teacher Bertha Flowers to begin speaking again so that she would know “what it was really like to feel poetry.”
  • Angelou and her brother moved to San Francisco to live with their mother. She attended high school and then dropped out to become the city’s first African American cable car conductor.
  • Angelou returned to high school and became pregnant. She gave birth to her son, Guy Johnson, at 17 years old and raised him up as a single mother. She later called the birth of her son “the best decision [she] ever made.”
  • In 1951, she married a Greek sailor named Tosh Angelos. The marriage was hotly contested by her family because Angelos was white and Angelou black. The marriage dissolved three years later because Angelou “couldn’t stay where there wasn’t any love.” Despite this, she remembered her relationship with him fondly.
  • She began her career as a nightclub singer in 1954 and, during this time, took the name Maya Angelou.
  • In 1959, Angelou developed her skills in writing poetry and moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. She also became involved with Civil Rights activists. At the request of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
  • Angelou and her son moved to Cairo, Egypt, in 1961. In Cairo, Angelou worked as editor of an English language newspaper. She later moved to Ghana.
  • In 1965, she returned to America hoping to help Malcolm X build his new organization after his split from the Nation of Islam, but he was assassinated soon after her return.
  • In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Angelou began working on her autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was published in 1969.
  • In 2014, after a lifetime of inspiring works and activism, Angelou passed away.

The above is a condensed timeline of Angelou’s life because, to be honest, there was no way we could fully encapsulate this icon’s life in just a few sentences. We encourage further reading of Angelou’s works and this timeline for a more comprehensive view of her life.

Personality Analysis

Maya Angelou was a deeply prolific woman, but we’d like to talk about what made her so prolific – her personality. Specifically, her fierce will to continue forward, no matter what.

Let’s get into the components that made Maya Angelou an Assertive Protagonist personality type.


“If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love.”

Maya Angelou

We define Extraverts as personality types who are more interested in engaging the environment around them. And if there’s one thing that one can say about Maya Angelou, it’s that she was always ready to eagerly engage.

She was also remarkably optimistic, though she had every right not to be. This is evidence of her Extraversion turning itself outward, rather than ruminating inward.

Had she been an Advocate (INFJ) personality type rather than a Protagonist, she might have seemed more melancholy. That’s not to say that Introversion always leads to sadness, but that Introverted personality types are likely to spend more time in their thoughts. Extraverts, on the other hand, may find it easier to consider their thoughts and generally react more quickly to external stimuli.


Among all of Angelou’s personality traits, perhaps her most prominent was her Intuitive trait. We describe Intuitive types as follows:

“Individuals with the Intuitive trait prefer to rely on their imagination, ideas, and possibilities. They dream, fantasize, and question why things happen the way they do.”

Angelou was always questioning. It seemed to be her default nature. Not only that, she also saw far beyond the tradition around her. She saw her potential beyond what society had planned for her as a teenage mother, a black woman, and a creative.


Angelou was asked in a 2013 interview what accolade mattered most to her. She replied, “I like for people to say I’m kind. It means that I’m still learning and that I’m able to forgive.”

Kindness was important to Angelou, as was love. It was the basis for her decisions, rather than efficiency. This isn’t to say she wasn’t efficient or didn’t take logic into consideration. In a letter to her younger self she wrote, “Be courageous, but not foolhardy.”

Angelou felt deeply. While she was logical, she preferred to use emotions when making decisions. An example would be her relationship with Tosh Angelos and her decision to leave him because “there was no love.”

Angelou made it a point to have her life revolve around love. All kinds of love. Self, familial, romantic, friendships. Everything she did in her life was to propel forward a message of love and self-respect.

Thinking personality types understand love well, make no mistake, but they do their best to keep their emotions from spilling forward. Particularly emotions with a negative stigma attached to them – anger, sadness, loneliness. Angelou, however, had no issue conveying what she felt. She cried in front of hundreds, made sure that people knew when she was angry, and never shied away from displaying her emotions.


Angelou knew how she wanted to be treated and how she wanted to treat others.

Though Angelou was incredibly open-minded, once she made up her mind it was difficult to convince her otherwise. She was determined to remain optimistic, no matter what. This was due to a mixture of her Extraverted, Intuitive, and Judging personality traits.

For evidence, all we have to do is look at Angelou’s own words:


Angelou was incredibly Assertive. She claimed that this came from the day her grandmother died and Angelou realized that she would die too. She remembered that it had an amazing impact on her. Knowing that she was going to die gave her the strength to be bold and have confidence in her decisions.

In a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Angelou said:


Maya Angelou, for all intents and purposes, was destined to live a tragic life. She was born into poverty to parents who separated when she was young, and she faced horrible trauma that made her think she couldn’t speak.

It was in those years of not speaking that she truly found her voice. In the time that she was silent, Maya Angelou developed into the icon we remember today.

Angelou taught us that love, kindness, and self-respect are the most important things in life – and her message has resounded loud and clear.

Here at 16Personalities, we hold accuracy in high esteem. That said, there’s only so much research we can do on a person. Without being able to interview and assess a living Angelou, our label of Assertive Protagonist can only ever be theoretical.

Do you have your own theories? Let us know in the comments if you think we missed anything!

Further Reading

Malala the Protagonist: The Personality of the Youngest Nobel Peace Prize Winner

William Wordsworth: Dawn of a Romantic Mediator Personality

Aretha Franklin: An Icon... and a Defender