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Remembering Maya Angelou

In the News, Rare Books

After a long battle with illness, Maya Angelou has died in her Winston-Salem, North Carolina home.  The “lyrical witness of the Jim Crow South,” defied definitions throughout her life and reached the apex of her popularity and cultural presence when she delivered the inaugural poem of Bill Clinton’s presidency, “On the  Pulse of the Morning.”  Her most lasting and iconic literary legacy, however, is almost certainly captured in, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  A pioneering work of “autobiographical fiction,” trumpeting the voice of the previously unheralded female, southern, African-American, it was a critical and commercial literary success upon its publication in 1969.

Born Marguerite Ann Johnson, April 4, 1928, she would change her name to Maya Angelou in the 1950s while performing calypso at The Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco.  Dance and song were mere branches of a creative and artistic life that was evidence of a broad talent, emerging not only as poetry and prose in her lifetime, but also in opera, film, and civil rights activism (just to name a few).  Recounting the winding narrative of her life, she would publish a series of autobiographical works, beginning with “Caged Bird,” that documented the twists and turns that blazed as a crucible of neglect and sexual abuse, leading her to the depths of crime and poverty.  No surprise in retrospect, but in 1969 it no doubt raised eyebrows that this work resonated with so many and testified with such authority.

The University of Houston Special Collections holds a first edition of what might be considered a sequel to “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  “Gather Together in My Name,” picks up where “Caged Bird” leaves off as “the poet, still in her teens, gives birth to a son, tries to keep a job, falls in love, dances, falls out of love, chases after her kidnapped baby, and goes to work in a house of prostitution thinking she is helping the man she loves.”  Or, as Gary Younge writes, “To know her life story is to simultaneously wonder what on earth you have been doing with your own life and feel glad that you didn’t have to go through half the things she has.”

As we remember Maya Angelou, we invite you to the Special Collections Reading Room to study this work or any of Angelou’s other works in our holdings.  We wish her a lasting peace, assured that what she placed on paper and singed into our psyche will make certain her lasting legacy.

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