Maya Angelou, remembered from several angles

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Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem last week.
Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou will be remembered in a private ceremony for friends and family on the campus of Wake Forest University tomorrow.

Several Triad residents active in the realms of spirituality, art, politics and academia assess her legacy here:

Nathan O. Hatch, president, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem: “She devoted her life at Wake Forest to creating a love of language and a keen awareness of the power of literature and learning, and generations of Wake Forest students have lived richer lives for her teaching and guidance. Maya Angelou has been a towering figure — at Wake Forest and in American culture. She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights.”

Preston Lane, artistic director, Triad Stage, Greensboro: “Maya Angelou was such a towering figure in art, literature, and in life. I remember the first time I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and confronted realities I had never before imagined in metaphors and language that seared the soul with their power and message. She was, in many ways, the conscience of the American literary world. And she was always accessible, breaking down barriers to become a poet of the people. For many years I taught a class at UNCG exploring the oral interpretation of literature and was constantly surprised by the number of students who found a way into poetry through the works of Ms. Angelou, discovering a voice that made art out of their inner most thoughts. She will be missed all over the world but nowhere more than here in the Triad where she chose to make her home. But as young people discover her words through her prose and verse, she will live on in the dreams she instills in future generations.”

Larry Little, black freedom activist, Winston-Salem: “I’ve known Maya for I guess some 30 years or more. Particularly, you may be aware of the work of the Darryl Hunt Defense Committee. Maya Angelou arranged for the National Council of Churches to put up $50,000 bail for his release from prison. Maya gave a fund-raising speech at Dellabrook Presbyterian Church in 1985. We always communicated. We could have never gotten the National Council of Churches’ support without her.

“It took me awhile to compose myself after I got the news of her passing. She used her celebrity and notoriety to help people. That’s the Maya I knew and was inspired by. With the Darryl Hunt case, she was concerned about him. She was convinced he was being railroaded. We’ll never see her kind with that kind of celebrity, she performed for presidents, but she worked with common people. She’s just a beautiful human being. We had her for 86 years.

“When she spoke at the fundraiser for Darryl Hunt, she said, ‘The Scottsboro Boys were legally lynched.’ She said, ‘Darryl Hunt was legally lynched in this town.’ She said it unapologetically. I loved Maya. There are a lot of people who want to be famous, well known because they like the attention and popularity. Maya used hers to sew seeds of love and understanding, and to help the less fortunate.

“With the Darryl Hunt case it wasn’t easy to get it out of Forsyth County. Maya served on those boards and she said, ‘The National Council of Churches needs to get behind this.’ She was there when it wasn’t a popular thing to do.’ She could walk with presidents and kings and queens, but she never lost the common touch.”

Kristen Jeffers, urbanist, writer and placemaker, Greensboro: “I’ve just been trying to find things that speak to her sense of space. There’s a quote where she says, ‘You are only free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.’ And I came across the Southern Living article she did about why she chose Winston-Salem. She talked about the beauty of going to the mountains. The last time I went up there was a life-changing event for me.

Part of her influence was just being here as a major figure that has chosen this area as her home. It wasn’t an accident. She loved this landscape, she loved our music, she loved our food — everything about why we live here in this area. Just knowing that, that was something that struck me in later days.

“I definitely feel like she lived a full life. I think her quotes will be all over the place now, not just in this mourning period. Even she said something about how when spirits move on their words come back.”

Femi Shittu, poet and UNCG student, Greensboro: “The thing that I hold close to me about Maya Angelou is her past compared to the artist she became. That contrast really affirms me. She was a very lost young black woman at one point. She literally woke up someday, I read somewhere, and decided she was tired of living this life. And look what being tired led to.

“I didn’t know about Maya Angelou’s past probably until college. Our leaders are often put into an almost godly light. When I learned about how she grew up I was able to relate. It felt like she had been humanized. A lot of times when we idolize these people it feels like we aspire to have what they have and we cannot reach them.”

Sheila Hoyer, pastor of education and outreach at First Friends Meeting, Greensboro: “Her poem, ‘Still I Rise,’ has haunted me ever since I first read it. Even though I find myself in a place of leadership I battle all my own demons after being a woman raised in a church that told women, ‘You can’t be in leadership over men, you should not be educated, you should make babies and cook a man’s dinner and be happy.’ I recall reading that poem and thinking about my own ongoing journey of unraveling that evil taught to me. I had and still have so much to learn from her powerful words.

“[Angelou was] erudite, courageous, classy, beautiful and a force to be reckoned with.”

Laila Nur, singer-songwriter and musician, Greensboro: “I was probably in my early teens when I got my first piece of art by Maya Angelou. It was one of her autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings…. That was my introduction to Maya Angelou. It was mind-blowing to feel my experiences in other people or to feel other people’s experiences in me. After that, one of her most loved poems, ‘Still I Rise.’ That’s one of my favorites.

“[What’s impressive about the poem] is the audacity to be free. The audacity to be so black, so woman, to come up from so much struggle to proclaim your freedom and your inability to be broken down anymore after you’ve found that liberation. She speaks a lot about how art liberates and how love liberates. And those are very real to me.

“I think it is very important for black children to have black heroes in a world, not only in a country where your blackness has always been used against you. It’s been the reason and cause of your oppression. There is so much self-hate in black adolescents. Even if it’s not anyone calling you the N word or following you around and throwing things at you, as happened to her, just going into stores and not seeing black faces represented…. A lot of what I learned about blackness was there were black slaves. It’s very important to see black heroes. Growing up, Maya Angelou was one of my black heroes. She helped me transition out of self-hate and depression. She really helped me maneuver through discrimination and bigotry going through personal identity crisis trying to find self worth, as all of us do. Coupling that with also feeling like the color of your skin is such a problem is a lot to deal with.

“She’s definitely one of the people who saved my life.”