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Maya Angelou and African American Literature



Having just written about the value of American literature, I heard the sad news today of the death of Maya Angelou, one of the writers I listed as a “must read” for potential and existing students of history – American and otherwise. Dr. Angelou (she always insisted on the formal title), was 86 when she died and her seven autobiographical works covered the period from the Depression years of the 1930s through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The first volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), provides a powerful insight into the double burden of race and gender; raped by a family relative, Maya (her birth name was Marguerite) literally stopped speaking for a number of years. Her narrative gives a personal insight into the trials and tribulations of African Americans in this period and remains probably her greatest work.

A distinguished poet, Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Angelou at the Hay Festival several years ago and she was a remarkable, even formidable individual, still able to recall her encounters with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. She will be sadly missed – because of her “I know why the caged bird sings, alas.”


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