After the death of celebrated autobiographer, poet, and civil rights champion Maya Angelou on May 28 at her home in Winston-Salem, NC, the Academy of American Poets sent “Still I Rise,” perhaps her best-known poem, to its 300,000 Poem-a-Day subscribers. The airing of that memorably uncompromising piece—“You may write me down in history/ With your bitter, twisted lies,/ You may trod me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise”—was just one example of the widespread, heartfelt public response to her death—so large, in fact, that while Angelou’s family held a closed service at the Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University where she taught, the service was livestreamed by the university (view livestreamed service here). The ceremony took place on Saturday, June 7, at 10 a.m., with Oprah Winfrey helping with the arrangements and country singer Lee Ann Womack performing.
Libraries nationwide are already planning tributes. The Stockton–San Joaquin County Public Library will host a reading of Angelou’s works at its Maya Angelou Branch Library at 4 p.m., this Saturday, June 7. At the Bethlehem Public Library, PA, attendees at a June 10 event scheduled for 6:30 p.m. are invited to read Angelou’s poetry or writing of their own that she has inspired, with music performances also allowed. A Westchester, NY, paper announced that three local libraries—the Mount Pleasant Public Library, the Ossining Library, and the Croton Free Library—were all considering how to honor the author. Academic institutions also rushed to offer encomiums, among them the University of Houston Libraries, which invited students to study works by Angelou in the library’s Special Collections Reading Room.
The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem is celebrating Angelou’s life and work in a big way, with a free exhibition, “Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou 1928–2014,” organized by Angela Montefinise and running through June 30. Pulled from resources that including Angelou’s private archives, acquired by the library in 2010, the treasures on display include letters between Angelou and James Baldwin and Malcolm X; the handwritten manuscript of her landmark autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; and the original typed copy of “On The Pulse of Morning,” the poem Angelou read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993.
A life in literature
That libraries would seek to honor Angelou is hardly surprising. She was a powerful library advocate who appeared at numerous library events, including the 1986 ACRL National Conference in Baltimore, the 1991 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in Atlanta as the Public Library Association (PLA) President’s Program speaker, and the 1999 American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference in Birmingham, AL. In the early 2000s, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown even proposed her as director of the Oakland (CA) Public Library System.(It came to naught, but what an interesting idea.) I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings remain one of the most frequently challenged books of the last decades, according to the American Library Association, ranking third in the top 100 challenged titles for 1990–99.
What’s more, Angelou’s writing vocation was shaped in a small-town school library. As the author explained in a 2010 Huffington Post interview with the NYPL’s Montefinise, she was taken to the library after returning to her grandmother’s home in Arkansas following the traumatic events recounted in Caged Bird. At the time, she was essentially mute, but, encouraged by the woman who brought her to the library, she read every book there and—in more ways than one—found her voice. She concludes: “I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South, all the way up until I walked up the steps of the New York City library, I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” Hence her decision to donate her private archives to the Schomburg Center.
Angelou gave voice to an oppressed and suppressed African American community, as pointedly summed up by New York Times columnist Charles Blow in his moving tribute: “Reading her words, for the first time, I could see myself and my life in literature.” Notes Miriam Tualaio, NYPL/BPL BookOps, “Dr. Angelou’s books—especially her poetry and memoirs—brought diverse groups together, giving them an opportunity to pause, ponder, reflect, celebrate, question, and reconsider. She helped library users literally and figuratively find their voice and sing.”
Angelou’s output ranged widely, from cookbooks, plays, and inspiration to Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem, first read at the 2005 White House tree-lighting ceremony, to seven volumes of memoir (including 2013’s meditative Mom & Me & Mom), which will likely stand as her greatest achievement. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which awarded Angelou the 2013 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, said upon her death, “We share the gratitude of so many for Dr. Angelou’s contributions to literature, human rights, and social justice.” President Barack Obama, who awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, released a statement calling her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman…. But above all, she was a storyteller—and her greatest stories were true.”
Not unexpectedly, the storyteller herself gets the last word. In her interview with Montefinise, Angelou proclaimed, “Information is so important, and it must be open. Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.”
This story was updated Monday, June 9, 2014 to reflect information about the service