Authors Celebrate 90 Years of Maya Angelou

Authors chime in on that "rarest of lights," Maya Angelou, and how her words and presence changed them.

Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri. During her 87 years of life, Dr. Angelou found her calling as a poet, a memoirist, a singer, a journalist, an actress, a screenwriter, a director, and a Civil Rights activist. She worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, danced with Alvin Ailey, mentored Oprah Winfrey and delivered her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. Her storied career touched so many—from those she worked with and wrote alongside, to those she taught, to the countless readers who have pored over the words in the pages of her seven autobiographies, three essay collections and multiple volumes of poetry, to the authors who were inspired to write because they felt represented by her—her legacy lives on, even after her death in 2014. In honor of what would have been Dr. Maya Angelou’s 90th birthday, we asked authors to share their memories of the acclaimed poet—moments they shared together, how her writing made them feel represented and seen and how she inspired them to keep writing—forming a tribute to an incredible woman whose life and work have touched us all.

Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

When I was a young writing instructor, I used to teach Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings among the required readings. It’s an exceptionally inspiring example of discovering one’s own voice, both literally and figuratively, after an experience of trauma-linked silence. Although unspeakable events can demand a period of self-imposed muteness, there can also, eventually, come a time when truth insists on being told.

Many of my students, I knew, were carrying a history of individual and collective trauma. As a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, I was familiar with the effort of sorting through the stories that can be told and the ones that, for various reasons, remain hidden. Trauma is by definition a territory whose verbal and non-verbal language can elude us. What Maya Angelou revealed was the willingness to listen all the way through silence, knowing its shape and necessity, until a true narrative can be found. Sometimes we need to sing our way out of a cage, to embrace the void and then fill it with music.

Calvin Trillin, author of Jackson, 1964

Some years ago, I was the M.C. at a benefit for the East Harlem Tutorial Program. The schedule for the evening was that four or five authors would read from their work, and the readings would be followed by a reception. If there seemed to be time after the final author’s reading, I was to read a short piece of my own. The final author was Maya Angelou. She was in command of the room before she reached the podium. As I remember her performance, she began with a dramatic recitation of a poem. Then she read from one of her books. Then she sang. Then she recited another poem. When she finished, to thunderous applause, I walked toward the podium. My wife was sitting close to the stage, and I caught her eye. She didn’t need to shake her head. The expression on her face read, “I hope you’re not going to try to follow that.” When I reached the microphone, I said, “Our thanks to our authors and to the audience. I hope you will all join us for the reception.”

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Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here

Every black woman I know would count Maya Angelou among the voices that shaped their lives. She spoke our language to ourselves. She reinforced what our mommas told us about our beauty in the privacy of our homes, but she declared it before the world. Even now I can hear Maya Angelou’s deep voice reciting her own poetry. But I think what I love even more is that I can hear Angelou’s words in my mother’s voice, reciting the words “phenomenal woman” in the kitchen. I can hear my first black teacher declaring, “Still, I rise.” I can hear my friends declaring it over one another like a benediction. I can hear Angelou’s words in the voice of Oprah, in the voice of Nicki Minaj, in the voice of Serena Williams, and so many other black women icons who have all found strength in her poetry and advice. Her words have become ours, and I am grateful. Happy birthday, Maya Angelou. Your words are still rising in my soul.

Alexander Smalls, co-author of Between Harlem and Heaven

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings confirmed, redirected, and gave new value to my life with Angelou’s candid, unfiltered expressions. Her personal triumph over her fears and difficulties, her ability to navigate through the harsh realities of broken and misguided events, human failure and shortcomings by loved ones, dysfunction and abandonment she suffered and overcame, would become my strength, rock, and encouragement. Would change my life and fuel the power of my dreams. Because of Maya Angelou, my dreams became writings, my inner voice became my eyes, while giving me permission to love and honor myself. Who would have thought that years later, a young Black boy from the south, all grown up, an opera singer of note on the world stage, would meet and become friendly with the woman who through her writings lit the fire in my soul, a fire to last a lifetime.

Marlen Suyapa Bodden, author of The Wedding Gift

Thanks to Maya, at a young age I learned one of life’s most valuable skills. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the ninth grade, on my own, at a time (the mid-1970s) when the only assigned literature in school was written by white authors. Maya was the first writer to speak directly to me! And she said: no matter what torment you face, each time dig deep within yourself for courage—that element made of steel.

Issac J. Bailey, author of My Brother Moochie

I got to see Maya Angelou in person once, and it changed my life. Up close, it was even more apparent that hers was an elegant intellect, the kind that humbled and inspired. You knew you were neither as well-read nor as wise as she was, but it was clear she shared who she was not to intimidate but to convince you those insights were within your reach, too, if only you were willing to do the arduous work, the soul-searching, the research she had obviously done. She wanted you to want to walk that path, for the more of us who took up her gentle challenge to better ourselves, no matter the obstacles, the more it would benefit humanity as a whole, and that seemed to be her lifelong goal.

That’s what came through as I listened to her speak when I was a student at Davidson College in North Carolina and struggling to adjust to that predominantly white, upper-middle-class and wealthy environment as a black boy from a poor, rural, segregated school in the heart of the Deep South. Her words steeled my spine, opened my mind like little else, made my spirit sprout wings. Before that day, I knew why the caged birds sang. But because I saw her be an unapologetically strong black woman, comfortable in her dark skin, standing before a sea of people who didn’t look like her, I knew I could be a strong black man.

Sally Franson, author of A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out

The first time I saw Maya Angelou was in 1993 on the television during President Clinton’s inauguration. I was eight years old, already a writer in temperament if not practice, attending a school so white and Midwestern that recess supervisors confused kids with snowdrifts. The next day we read “On the Pulse of Morning” during language arts and, with Ms. Marty’s help, parsed its virtues dutifully. Sadly, I don’t remember these virtues because I was too busy mooning over Robbie Irwin. Thank God I rediscovered Angelou in my 20s when I was Robbie-free and far better equipped.

What a radical she was! And she stayed that way, despite efforts to relegate her to that declawed status of “national treasure.” When I picture her now, on what would be her 90th birthday, I see her sitting on a couch with Dave Chappelle in their now-famed 2014 interview. “If you’re not angry, you’re a stone,” she says, brow furrowed, “or you’re too sick to be angry.” Then her face lights up into the most radiant smile. “But mind you, you must never be bitter.”

Nell Irvin Painter, author of Old in Art School

I met Maya Angelou before she was Maya Angelou. She was Maya Make, the partner of one of the South African freedom fighters exiled in Ghana, where she and I belonged to the community of Afro-American (that was our name then) supporters of President Kwame Nkrumah’s idealistic notion of pan-African socialism. It was the mid-1960s, and Maya and I lived in Legon, home of the University of Ghana. She, a statuesque actor and dancer, was studying music and dance at the Institute of African Studies. I, newly graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, taught French and broadcast the news in French on Ghana Radio. She didn’t yet have the eminence of Maya Angelou, but she possessed the stance, fluency, and voice that we recognize in the icon.

We Afro-Americans scattered after a coup d’état in Ghana deposed Nkrumah in 1965—Maya to Egypt and New York and the writing career that made her a star. As she grew bigger and brighter in American culture, she remained down-to-earth and, well, earthy. She never forgot it was her work that grounded her, and she passed that wisdom on to me: to keep at my own work—my work, the work that only I could do—as she did the work only she could do, magnificently.

In the 1980s, while she lived in Winston-Salem, where she was a distinguished professor at Wake Forest University, and I lived in Chapel Hill, where I was a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, she graciously made a short film with me in her house. I was sometimes her guest there, which I saw as more and more a privilege as her stature increased and the masses of admirers pressed upon her. Her mother, an extraordinary figure in her own right, spent time with Maya in Winston-Salem. Once, when she and I were both visiting, Maya’s mother taught me how to knit continental style, a skill fellow sailors from Switzerland had taught her when she was working as a merchant sailor. I still knit that way, though both Maya and her mother have passed on.

Maya taught me not only about greatness but also about how lives change over time. She was not yet the Great Maya Angelou when I met her, but the seed was obviously there. I was honored to see it grow and flower into a towering tree of American literary greatness.

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy

Maya Angelou had a unique voice filled with love, wisdom, understanding, and compassion. Shaped by sorrow, adversity, strength, and resilience, she had a brilliant intellect and powerful insights about the human condition. She taught many of us how to confront our fears with humility but to trust our legacy as survivors. She was that rarest of lights that can illuminate you and the world surrounding you from the inside out.


Featured Image: Stephen Parker/Alamy Stock Photo

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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