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More than a Poet, but a Poet First: a Tribute to Maya Angelou

By Ed Southern, Executive Director, NCWN

Dr. Maya Angelou
Dr. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou did so much more than write.

She danced with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, sang calypso, became the first African-American woman to operate a San Francisco cable car, acted on stage and in films and in Roots, composed a film score, edited newspapers, raised money for Martin Luther King, Jr., counted among her friends both King and Malcolm X, and knew six languages.

Yet she devoted most of her life and considerable energy to writing, and described herself, first and foremost, as a poet.

She attained a worldwide celebrity that few authors, especially poets, ever enjoy. James Baldwin helped her shape her first book, the bestselling I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Bill Clinton asked her to be a part of his first inauguration. Reporters (including, once in 1992, a skinny, pimply writer for the Wake Forest student newspaper) sought her opinions on world events. The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live spoofed her, lovingly. Oprah Winfrey adored her. She’d lived and worked in California, New York City, Cairo, Ghana.

Yet since she arrived in 1982, she made—and kept—her home in North Carolina. Two years ago I had the honor of letting her know that she was to be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, and in my letter I mentioned our Wake Forest connection, and my awkward attempt to interview her twenty years before.

Her gracious response expressed her pride in being included in the august company of North Carolina, and her pride simply in being a Tarheel—“though not,” she added, “a Tarheel.” (Go Deacs.)

“I expect to be in Winston-Salem the rest of my life,” she told Fresh Air in 1986. “My books are there, my art is there, my friends are there, and my work is there.”

Maya Angelou died yesterday morning in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was and is proud to have been her home.