By Angela Oliver Messenger-Inquirer | Posted: Friday, May 30, 2014 12:00 am
After being raped by her mother's boyfriend as a child, Maya Angelou remained silent for several years, thinking that her voice — she told her brother of the abuse — was the reason the man was later killed.
Angelou emerged from her silence an abyss of words, songs and poetry that reached millions. She died Wednesday morning at her Winston-Salem, N.C., home at 86.
Local people said they were fortunate to have heard her voice at the RiverPark Center in 1995.
"I had the honor of introducing her and asked her how to pronounce her last name; I'd heard it two ways," said Marisue Coy, English professor emeritus at Kentucky Wesleyan College. "She told me, then shook my hand. I didn't think I would ever wash that hand again."
KWC presented the lecture, one in a four-year series, with grants from the Kellogg and Christian A. Johnson Endeavor foundations. It was part of the profiles in leadership class in which freshmen would read autobiographies and biographies of various leaders, including Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud and Louis Pasteur.
When Coy taught the class, she assigned 1969's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the first of Angelou's seven autobiographies and the book credited for propelling her to fame.
"We had not studied any women, people of color or leaders in literature, so I thought it was the perfect way to introduce the students to all of that," Coy said. "At the time, she was well-known, but not as big as she became."
Two years earlier, Angelou became the second poet to recite at a presidential inauguration — Robert Frost was the first at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 — with her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," at Bill Clinton's first.
A single mother at 17, Angelou worked through her 20s at a strip club, as a business manager for a prostitution operation, a prostitute herself and a regular singer at a San Francisco nightclub.
"She had a tough life," said Mike Fagan, retired assistant dean, psychology professor and chair of the committee that arranged Angelou's visit. "Students took a spirit of optimism from that night. She taught them that if you work hard, you can bounce back, you can help people, you can be successful."
Angelou shared details of her life and read her poems to a packed house, he said.
"She dealt with a lot of racism and abuse, but she described things, even harsh things, in such a way that you didn't feel anger or bitterness," Coy said.
Kelly Frank, then a junior English major and softball player, said she was in awe of the 6-foot Angelou.
"She had such a presence, such a swagger," Frank said. "It was a combination of confidence and humility. She talked to every student who walked up to her. KWC is such a small, community-driven school; it felt special that someone so influential was willing to spend the evening with us."
Frank said she was a fan of Angelou before the lecture.
" ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' really resonated with me," she said. "I'm white, but I could still relate as a woman. Her work is empowering for all women.
"I lost my breath for a moment when I read the news," she said. "We all knew she would go some time, but often we think someone of her stature is above even death."
The attendees said Angelou's lecture is one they'll cherish.
"She grew from her challenges," Coy said. "She represented what we like to think we all have in us. That's the ability to take the bad and change it into good to inspire others."
Angela Oliver, 691-7360, [email protected]