Merlene Davis: Kentucky writers share their admiration, appreciation for Maya Angelou

Herald-Leader columnistMay 28, 2014 

I don't think many people my age, or nearing my age, heard the news of Maya Angelou's death without gasping.

The woman who transformed herself from an intentional mute into the voice of a people, a generation and a movement, was found dead in her Wake Forest, N.C., home Wednesday. She had been ill in recent days, forced to cancel a visit to the Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game ceremony, but, true to her desire for privacy, her illness was never revealed.

Angelou, born Marguerite Johnson and raised in Stamps, Ark., and San Francisco, was a rape victim at 7, a single mother at 17, a stripper, dancer, calypso singer, street car conductor and actress long before writing her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at 40.

The story about living in the American South in the 1930s and 1940s, of being raped and oppressed, is considered an American classic.

"There is no way an obituary can say poet and stop there," said Frank X Walker, Kentucky Poet Laureate and winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry. "Poet is much too small a word."

Angelou took risks by unveiling so much of her past, a life filled with tragic events early on. After she was raped by her mother's boyfriend and he was later found dead, "I thought my voice had killed the man," Angelou said years later. "And I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill anybody, randomly, and I stopped speaking for six years."

That eloquent voice and poetic words of wisdom are now quite familiar. Both command respect.

"She could tell and sing a story in the same sweet dazzling breath," said Nikky Finney, 2011 National Book Award winning poet who taught at the University of Kentucky for 20 years before returning to her native South Carolina.

"It didn't matter who or what you were, when she walked in the room, even the silverware got quiet. She was a queen. She was majestic. She was our great humanitarian."

Finney said she learned about survival, struggle and the resilience of the human heart from Angelou's example. "In this moment of stunning loss, it feels like a great human library has burned to the ground," Finney said.

Finney recalled the time she opened for Angelou about 20 years ago at a black women's film festival in Denver. The 300-seat venue was packed with Angelou lovers, she said. Finney's job was to read her work until Angelou arrived.

During the last 15 minutes of her reading, she noticed Angelou standing stage right, arms folded with her left hand on her chin, listening intently.

"I wondered how long she had been standing there," Finney said.

After her reading Finney was ushered to a seat to listen to Angelou, whom she had never met. When Angelou finished — after singing and reading for two hours — a man approached Finney. He was Angelou's chauffeur and he asked Finney to have dinner with Angelou.

On the way to an Italian restaurant, Angelou told Finney, "'You are a poet and your words link home to family,'" Finney recalled. "'You tell the stories and the family hears you,' she said. I will never forget that."

Angelou knew Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, and was very active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Although she dropped out of high school to support her son, she read hungrily and was self-taught in various disciplines and several languages. She was awarded more than 30 honorary degrees.

"She was that rare human that not only saw the importance of self love, but found a way to praise and savor life while still acutely acknowledging its overwhelming darkness," said Ada Limón, a renowned Mexican-American poet who lives in Lexington. "In her example, I not only see the definitive guide on how to be a writer, but how to be a woman, a human, a teacher, a giver, a lover of the world, a practitioner of forgiveness and a champion of truth."

Neil Chethik, author and director of Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning, agreed. "Ms. Angelou believed writing was a sacred act, and she seemed to appreciate writers in the best possible way: she believed everyone had talent, everyone should be heard, and everyone should be forgiven."

Angelou was also a passionate teacher and longtime professor at Wake Forest University. "I realize that if I had taught before I had written a book. I might never have written a book. I love to teach. I am a teacher," she said.

Contacted as she was leaving a speaking engagement at Raceland-Worthington High School in Raceland, Ky., poet Bianca Spriggs said Angelou is the reason she is a poet.

"I was a freshman at Transy (Transylvania University) when I saw her speak at the Singletary Center," Spriggs said. "I was 18. It was the first time I had ever heard a poet live.

"She said people need to go and read and write poetry and I thought she was talking directly to me," she recalled. "So I went home and started writing these little things I thought were poems.

"We just lost a very, very great person," Spriggs continued. "The world is grayer."

The high school students she spoke to in Raceland weren't familiar with Angelou's work, Spriggs said. She took time to explain, to teach.

"What I'm doing today is her legacy," Spriggs said.

Another part of that legacy is Angelou's ability to take the frightening and uncertain aspects of life and make them less so just by telling her own story of survival and success and connecting with ordinary people.

Young black girls are transformed when they recite her poems, And Still I Rise, or Phenomenal Woman. Walker said his sisters would not call themselves readers, but each of them had read at least one of Angelou's books.

"She was the people's laureate," said award-winning author Crystal Wilkinson who teaches at Morehead State University and Louisville's Spalding University. "Her poetry was simple but not simplistic. Accessible. A person could read it on a street corner or in a classroom."

"She has earned her place with the ancestors," Walker said. "I don't know anybody anywhere who didn't speak of her in regal terms. She commanded that."

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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