George Washington community shares memories of first encountering the author’s work.
June 02, 2014
Literary titan Maya Angelou passed away last Wednesday at age 86. The author, poet and essayist rose to international acclaim after publishing her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” in 1969. Through her profound writing, she gave voice to racial and identity issues she faced as an African American woman in the South.
Dr. Angelou wasn’t only renowned for her literature. James Miller, professor of English and American studies, remembers that in addition to being at the forefront of black women writers, Dr. Angelou was also a fearless activist and pioneer of civil rights. Dr. Miller recalled her as one of the women—along with vocalist Abby Lincoln and Nina Simone—who stormed the halls of the United Nations to protest the 1961 assassination of Prime Minister of the Congo Patrice Lumumba.
George Washington Today talked to members of the GW community to gather memories of the late Dr. Angelou, her work and the impact she had in American culture.
James Miller, Professor of English and American Studies
“I had the pleasure of meeting Maya Angelou in Los Angeles during the late 1970s while I was on a sabbatical, doing research at UCLA. We bumped into each other after a film screening of ‘The Wiz,’ starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. I was star-struck; Dr. Angelou was warm, gracious and charismatic and, in fact, invited me and my family to join her and others for dinner.
Part of Dr. Angelou’s appeal rested in her unique ability to provide the connective tissue linking the experiences of generations of thinkers and activists from the 1950s until her death—and she did so with a generosity of spirit that will secure her place in American life and culture.”
Amanda Itliong, B.A. ’01
“George Washington University Professor of English Gayle Wald sparked my interest in Dr. Angelou. When I first read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ it gave me a sense of importance to the life stories of ordinary people. Even though Dr. Angelou was far from ordinary, it showed me the depth and potential that lives within everyone.
Her work challenged me to be an ally to the oppressed and to push through my own struggles based on my identity and my personal story.”
Lisa Page, Acting Director of Creative Writing
“I first encountered Dr. Angelou's work when I was in elementary school. ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ was the only other book, besides Margaret Walker’s ‘Jubilee,’ that was written by an African American woman, reflecting on the black experience of the American South (at least in terms of what I had access to at the time). I devoured both books, but especially loved Dr. Angelou’s work. As a preteen, I was desperately searching for my own identity, and Dr. Angelou's experience really resonated with me. She made survival an art form.
Her voice influenced my own writing in terms of possibility. Before reading her, I hadn't really put it together that my experience was a relevant addition to the American experience. She was able to expose herself in a real way—with all the warts and wonders of trauma, creativity, artistic expression and identity. She was one of my first role models.”