Maya Angelou: A poet, artist for the ages

Guest post courtesy of IU Newsroom colleague Jaclyn Lansbery:

Modern Renaissance woman Maya Angelou – published poet, memoirist, singer, professor and civil rights activist – took the IU Auditorium stage on March 1, 2009, speaking of her difficult childhood growing up in rural Arkansas during the time of Jim Crow laws.

Visit by author Maya Angelou highlight of 2009 ArtsWeek celebration

Maya Angelou gave a lecture at the IU Auditorium March 1, 2009 as part of IU’s 25th Annual ArtsWeek celebration.

Her visit to IU Bloomington and lecture was part of IU’s 25th Annual ArtsWeek celebration, which had the theme of merging art and politics.

Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Wednesday, according to her literary agent. She was 86. Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou personifies in her work how art and politics can change one’s life for the better.

In her most famous memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1970 as one of the first nonfiction best-sellers written by an African-American woman, Angelou recalled how her mother’s boyfriend raped her at 8 years old.

For the next five years, after her attacker was killed (murdered, Angelou suspected, by her own uncles), Angelou didn’t speak.

Stacey Lynn Brown, who teaches creative writing at IU Bloomington’s Department of English within the College of Arts and Sciences, said Angelou “listened and watched the world around her, a silent but observant participant” during those years.

The author of 12 best-selling books and numerous magazine articles, Angelou received more praise for her memoirs than her poetry. But when she delivered her inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s presidential swearing-in, she received the Grammy Award for “Best Spoken Word.” Angelou also gave a lecture at the IU Auditorium in 2001 and visited IU Bloomington in 1975.

“There is a trend inside academia when it comes to poetry,” said Brown, a published poet, playwright and essayist from Atlanta, Ga. “The more accessible it is, the more it tends to be looked down upon. Maya Angelou’s poetry is accessible. She wrote about personal experiences in language that is easy to understand and even easier to relate to.”

Maya Angelou during her 1975 visit to IU Bloomington at the Indiana Memorial Union. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

Maya Angelou during her 1975 visit to IU Bloomington at the Indiana Memorial Union. Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

Angelou’s poetry collection “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die” won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Her other poetry volumes include “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well” (1975), “And Still I Rise” (1978) and “Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?” (1983).

“Maya didn’t write for academics,” Brown said. “She wrote for the people. She wrote for the girl who might recognize herself in Angelou’s memoirs. She wrote for the worn-out woman who refuses to stay down. She wrote for the dispossessed and the disheartened and the disillusioned.”

Brown recalled being in the audience last November in New York when Angelou received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. In a husky, contralto voice, Angelou – who had embarked on a career as a calypso dancer and singer during the 1950s – sang “When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.”

Brown recalled, “Angelou ended her acceptance speech by saying, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing’ – a lesson that sums up the courage of a lifetime given over to the power of words.”

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