Rita Dove remembers the life and work of Maya Angelou

May 28, 2014
Students on grounds

Rita Dove, Commonwealth Professor of English, has released the following statement on Maya Angelou's life and work:

Maya Angelou was indeed a phenomenal woman – rising from the ashes of a childhood that would have rendered many of us mute and enraged, she made her way in a world that all too often despised her kind – a black woman, tall, fierce, and most fearsome of all, unafraid. 

All of this is chronicled in the six volumes of her landmark autobiography – most notably its first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Now children read sections of it in school.  As my grandmother would have said had she met her: "Girl, you done done something!”

I have encountered so many people for whom her poetry has been a balm and even a salvation:  This is no mean feat, muttering critics aside.  And though I would not count myself among the most ardent fans of her poetry, I admired her Inaugural recitation for President Clinton, On the Pulse of Morning, as a masterful exemplar of the occasional poem.  It manages that most difficult trick: to be both simple and deep, appreciated by the person on the street upon first hearing, and yet containing riches upon closer, deeper reading – complex images, poignant litanies, a trajectory from the dinosaurs to the moment we were celebrating:  a new President, a new era. 

I first met Maya around 1990 when she came to speak in Charlottesville, where I teach at the University of Virginia. I managed to squeak past security to the green room a few minutes before her gig.  I was uneasy, unsure of my reception:  After all, I was part of a new generation of African-American poets, a “literary” aesthete in the eyes of many who had stamped out a space for Black literature in the sixties. Would she brand me a sell-out, a literary snob?  I knocked on the doorjamb and announced myself; she turned the table, smiled, and enveloped me in an embrace. 

Maya Angelou was a beacon to many – poets and artists of all kinds, those young protégées eager to make a mark, those older and perhaps already discouraged.  Her autobiographical books were startling in their honesty but most importantly, also dazzling in their artistry:  Here I am, they proclaimed; here we are, they whispered.  Being an icon is often a lonely, thankless job:   Envy and worship are two sides of the same ambivalent coin.  But Maya wore the mantle with a dignity and joy that emboldened and enlivened those who knew her story:  She understood the hunger for role models providing a window onto a world many had not been able to imagine.  She did us proud.