Dr. Maya Angelou

We received the sad news this morning that Maya Angelou, Reynolds Professor of American Studies, has passed away at the age of 86.  There is a very nice remembrance website and guestbook, which I commend to you.

Much will be written about this remarkable woman in the coming days, and we’ll let the experts reflect on her life, her contributions to literature and civil rights and public life.  I will share a couple of recollections here.

She taught a poetry class here at Wake.  It was taught in her home.  I did not take the class, but for the students I knew who did, they said it was one of the most amazing experiences of their lives.  Can you even imagine being 18 or 20, an earnest student of literature, having an author of that stature teaching you, reading poetry, discussing?  It would have been amazing.  My Wake friends on Facebook and Twitter have been posting their pictures of class and their remembrances of Dr. Angelou.  They are all quite moving reflections.

maya turbanWhat I remember most about Dr. Angelou was that this was a woman with an incredible voice.  You think of her as an amazing author with vastly important things to say – and that is true – but her physical voice was something special.  I went to a poetry reading she did in Brendle Recital Hall once.  She came across the stage with such regal bearing.  Sort of a part walk, part strut, part glide.  She had a giant red turban on – I mean really red.  Scarlet.  Gorgeous (the picture to the right isn’t it, and doesn’t quite do it justice, but it is close).  And as she glided out onto the stage, she was singing what sounded like an old spiritual.  Her voice started low and slow, and built to a great big booming crescendo.  I will remember it as long as I live.  She had incredible presence.

She had written the inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning“, back in 1993 for President Clinton’s inauguration.  I was a graduate student at the time in our English program, and I happened to be talking to one of our faculty members who was close to Dr. Angelou.  I told her how much I admired the poem, and the faculty member said she’d be happy to get me an autographed copy.  It was a wonderful offer, but suspecting how busy both the faculty member and Dr. Angelou were, I wasn’t sure when I might actually receive it.

But to my delight, a few weeks later, there was a beautiful copy of the poem – a small red booklet.  And on the page with the title and her name, there was Dr. Angelou’s big bold signature, and the giant word JOY! written above it.

I loved that she signed it JOY!  Everything about her was larger than life – her voice, her clothes, her presence, her talent.

Rest in peace, Dr. Angelou.

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