Quote Origin: You May Encounter Many Defeats, But You Must Not Be Defeated

Maya Angelou? Claudia Tate? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator®
4 min readJul 3


Chessboard of defeat and victory
from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: You will experience many setbacks and reversals in life, but you should never feel defeated. Encountering difficulties will help you to strengthen your power to endure and succeed. The prominent poet and memoirist Maya Angelou said something like this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Maya Angelou spoke on this theme several times. In 1970 the “Los Angeles Times” reported on Angelou’s motivations for writing her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:¹

“I meant to write it to black girls, to say ‘you can win.’ But it came out the Chinese girl in Chinatown, the white girl in Texas, the farm girl In Iowa, the deb living up on the hill. All people harbor the same fears, dreams, hopes, goals.

They want to love. That is the human condition. I wanted to say to all girls, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you just must never be defeated.’”

In 1979 the “Lexington Herald” of Kentucky presented an interview with Angelou during which she said the following:²

“Bitterness is like cancer,” said Ms. Angelou, when asked if the adversity in her early life had embittered her. “It eats away at you and doesn’t develop anything. But anger purges, and can help you.

“I believe it may be necessary to encounter many defeats,” Ms. Angelou said, “without being defeated by them. Trials shape and mold you. I think I am a result of the pressure I have endured.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1983 Claudia Tate published the interview collection “Black Women Writers At Work”. Tate asked Maya Angelou about her writings:³

ANGELOU: . . . All my work, my life, everything is about survival. All my work is meant to say, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.

In 1989 editor Jeffrey M. Elliot published the collection “Conversations with Maya Angelou” in the Literary Conversations series. The Tate-Angelou interview was included. Thus, the passage above achieved further distribution.⁴

In 1995 “Abilene Reporter-News” of Texas printed an article which used the following as an epigraph:⁵

“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. The encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and power to endure.”
— Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou directed the 1998 film “Down in the Delta”. She discussed the central message of the film during an interview:⁶

“To me, the movie said, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.’ When you encounter defeats, you find out who you are, what you can rise up from.”

Originally shot for Showtime, Down in the Delta was picked up for theatrical distribution by Miramax after its first screenings generated a healthy buzz. “The movie turned out better than I had hoped,” admits Angelou.

In 1999 editor Joanne M. Braxton published “Maya Angelou’s I Know why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook” which included a reprint of the Tate-Angelou interview.⁷

In conclusion, Maya Angelou did eloquently express this inspirational notion on multiple occasions using variable phrasing. The version spoken during the interview with Claudia Tate has been reprinted several times.

Image Notes: A chessboard representing defeat and victory from Artur Shamsutdinov at Unsplash.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

[1] 1970 April 16, Los Angeles Times, Faith of Black Woman in a World Full of Conflict by Maggie Savoy (Times Woman’s Editor), (Continuation title: Faith of Black Woman Amid Turmoil), Start Page 1, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)

[2] 1979 April 12, Lexington Herald, Poet Says Her Love of Poetry Grew Despite Poverty by Eileen Levy (The Herald Sun Staff), Quote Page A3, Column 4 and 5, Lexington, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)

[3] 1985 (1983 Copyright), Black Women Writers At Work, Edited by Claudia Tate, Chapter: Maya Angelou, Start Page 1, Quote Page 7, Oldcastle Books, England. (Verified with scans)

[4] 1989 Copyright, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Edited by Jeffrey M. Elliot, Series: Literary Conversations, Interview: Maya Angelou, From: Black Women Writers at Work (1983), edited by Claudia Tate, Start Page 146, Quote Page 152, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)

[5] 1995 March 26, Abilene Reporter-News, Section: Sunday Life, Celebrating black Texans’ contributions by Audrey Scott, Quote Page 9, Column 5, Abilene, Texas. (Newspapers_com)

[6] 1998 December 20, Courier-Post, Maya finds new direction by Amy Longsdorf (For the Courier Post), Quote Page 1D, Column 5, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)

[7] 1999 Copyright, Maya Angelou’s I Know why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook, Edited by Joanne M. Braxton, Chapter: Maya Angelou: An Interview with Claudia Tate, Start Page 149, Quote Page 154, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)



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