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Rita Dove remembers Maya Angelou

By Rich Heldenfels Published: May 28, 2014

The Akron native and former U.S. Poet Laureate has offered this statement about Angelou, who has died at age 86:

Maya Angelou was indeed a phenomenal woman – rising from the ashes of a childhood that would have rendered many of us mute and enraged, she made her way in a world that all too often despised her kind – a black woman, tall, fierce, and most fearsome of all, unafraid. 

All of this is chronicled in the six volumes of her landmark autobiography – most notably its first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Now children read sections of it in school.  As my grandmother would have said had she met her:” Girl, you done done something!”

I have encountered so many people for whom her poetry has been a balm and even a salvation:  This is no mean feat, muttering critics aside.  And though I would not count myself among the most ardent fans of her poetry, I admired her Inaugural recitation for President Clinton, On the Pulse of Morning, as a masterful exemplar of the occasional poem.  It manages that most difficult trick: to be both simple and deep, appreciated by the person on the street upon first hearing, and yet containing riches upon closer, deeper reading – complex images, poignant litanies, a trajectory from the dinosaurs to the moment we were celebrating:  a new President, a new era. 

I first met Maya around 1990 when she came to speak in Charlottesville, where I teach at the University of Virginia. I managed to squeak past security to the green room a few minutes before her gig.  I was uneasy, unsure of my reception:  After all, I was part of a new generation of African-American poets, a “literary” aesthete in the eyes of many who had stamped out a space for Black literature in the sixties. Would she brand me a sell-out, a literary snob?  I knocked on the doorjamb and announced myself; she turned the table, smiled, and enveloped me in an embrace. 

Maya Angelou was a beacon to many – poets and artists of all kinds, those young protégées eager to make a mark, those older and perhaps already discouraged.  Her autobiographical books were startling in their honesty but most importantly, also dazzling in their artistry:  Here I am, they proclaimed; here we are, they whispered.  Being an icon is often a lonely, thankless job:   Envy and worship are two sides of the same ambivalent coin.  But Maya wore the mantle with a dignity and joy that emboldened and enlivened those who knew her story:  She understood the hunger for role models providing a window onto a world many had not been able to imagine.  She did us proud. 

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