Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Caged Bird Flys

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Caged Bird Flys

Article excerpt

Scholars and social leaders honor the life and work of Maya Angelou after her passing in May.

With grace and elegance, Maya Angelou did it all.

She was among the last of a generation of artists whose life's work was deeply connected to a commitment to social justice. A gifted author best known for her uplifting poetry, she was also a pioneering actress, journalist, singer and dancer, all the while remaining a staunch advocate for civil and human rights.

But for the hundreds of young people who had the rare opportunity to take a class with her at Wake Forest University, where she served as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies since 1982, Angelou was a mesmerizing and exacting teacher who pushed them to become agents for social change.

"No matter how busy she was, she took her responsibility in the classroom very seriously," says Dawn Brown, who was enrolled in her class during the late 1980s. "She was a tough instructor, but at every class session, you just felt like you were in the presence of someone who embodied greatness."

Over the past few weeks Brown - and the world - have paused to mourn the literary giant who died on May 28 at the age of 86, having left behind a body of work that includes classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Phenomenal Woman.

Even though she was frail in recent years and confined to a wheelchair, news of her death still rocked the academic community with a profound sense of sadness.

Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, who also enrolled in Angelou's class during her sophomore year at Wake Forest, took to Twitter to pay homage.

"My dear, dear mentor who saw me through so much. Who will light our path without you? Rest in Peace Dr. Angelou."

In an interview with Diverse, author and lecturer Tim Wise says Angelous influence and reach was intergenerational.

'A lot of young peoples first introduction to race and gender issues came through reading Maya Angelou," says Wise, who did not know Angelou personally but positions her alongside James Baldwin as one of the nations most iconic writers. He says that attempts over the years by some to ban Angelous work are evidence that her message was powerful and transformative.

Ironically, Angelou never graduated from college, but she was the recipient of more than 30 honorary doctoral degrees from some of the nations most prestigious universities.

"She had a profound influence in civil rights and racial reconciliation," recalls Dr. Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest. "We will miss profoundly her lyrical voice and always keen insights."

After she began teaching at Wake Forest, Angelou settled down in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but later purchased a brownstone in Harlem, where she would stay for months at a time.

From trauma to triumph

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou grew up in the racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. She later said that she took up writing after she was raped by her mothers boyfriend. He was later cornered and beaten to death by the town mob after she testified in court against him.

"My 7-and-a-half-year-old logic deduced that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years," she later wrote.

Angelou spent her early years studying dance and drama in San Francisco, but dropped out of school at the age of 14. She later returned to high school to receive her diploma and gave birth to a son a few weeks after graduation. …

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