One of the country’s most accomplished writers passed away Wednesday, as acclaimed author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was found dead at the age of 86 in her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In her passing, Angelou left a void in the literary world that will likely never be filled: She was an accomplished writer, poet and actress who seamlessly blended her own life into her works. She was, by all accounts, a trailblazer and one of the most famous black female authors in history.
Robert Felgar, head of the English department at Jacksonville State University, characterized Angelou’s passing as a tragedy. Felgar teaches a black literature classes at JSU each semester and always touches on some of Angelou’s works, especially her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“It’s a major setback,” Felgar said of Angelou’s death. “She’s irreplaceable, in the black and the non-black literary world. I know of no one else like her.”
Angelou was a three-time Grammy Award winner for her spoken-word albums, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1973 for her role in the Broadway play, “Look Away.” She received more than 30 honorary degrees and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by President Barack Obama.
Perhaps her most enduring legacy, however, can be found in her written works. Angelou is best known for “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a coming of age story that deals with subjects such as rape, racism, identity and literacy.
She was also a prolific poet — she created and recited “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, making her only the second poet since Robert Frost recited for John F. Kennedy to compose a poem at a presidential inauguration.
Angelou also contributed to the civil rights movement, raising funds and even putting on an off-Broadway show called “Cabaret for Freedom” to help raise money and awareness. She called Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X friends, and served as the northern coordinator for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Georgia Calhoun, the coordinator of the annual Black Heritage Festival in Anniston for the last 34 years, shared Felgar’s sentiments on Angelou’s passing.
“I know that a lot of us are getting closer to the end, after some time well-spent but you just think that some people will just keep on living,” Calhoun said. “Of course, her works will live on. She has left a legacy with her works, and her words, and her wisdom.”
That legacy will continue to live on in Anniston, Calhoun said. Angelou is among the festival’s most-read authors, a testament to the impact her works have had over the years. Calhoun, who can recite Angelou’s poetry from memory, wants to see her memorialized at next year’s festival by hanging up lines of the poet’s work at the event.
Both Calhoun and Felgar said they hope to see Angelou’s legacy carried on, even if later generations aren’t entirely able to relate to some of the difficulties she faced in her own lifetime.
“Certainly they will value her for qualities we’re not aware of now, that she herself was not aware of,” Felgar said. “They will also value her for qualities that we recognize today. Her legacy’s pretty secure. I’m pretty sure she’ll survive for a long time.”