Kenneth McClane, a Harlem native who became a friend of Maya Angelou and the W.E.B. DeBois Professor of Literature at Cornell University, reflects on the loss of his mentor, Maya Angelou, and her ability to capture the resilience emblematic of African American life.
“For many of us, Maya Angelou will be remembered for two important works of literature, the superb autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings,’ and her anthem, the powerful poem, ‘Still I Rise.’ In both works, she captured the resilience emblematic of African American life – the ability for African Americans to face the horrors of the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow with dignity and grace.
“As a writer, actor, college professor and civil rights activist, Professor Angelou exemplified the scholar/activist. She was courageous, working in many genres, helping young writers through her undiminishable enthusiasm for work and self-affirmation. She was also a generous friend and mentor to many young writers, myself included.
“Whatever critics felt about her poetry, no one argued better for human possibility.
“In her autobiographical ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ Ms. Angelou describes a southern black segregated high school's graduation ceremony, a place where the white school administrators only celebrated children who wanted to be athletes. As she listened to the visiting white school superintendent, clearly someone who would never again come to this small, barren school, she thought of her classmate – a brilliant young black student, who would never play football – and she understood, for the first time, what was so powerful about James Weldon Johnson's words in ‘The Negro National Anthem.’
“Ms. Angelou, till her death, continued James Weldon Johnson's exhortation: she sang us into freedom.”