ELKINS - Local academics reflected on the life and influence of renowned writer and poet Maya Angelou, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 86.
"I remember her for her continuous fight for civil rights and against man's inhumanity to man,"
said Laurie Goux, adjunct professor of dance at Davis & Elkins College. "Her poem 'Phenomenal Woman' allowed me as an African American woman to hold my head higher and be proud of who I am. My mentor Katherine Dunham said, the art 'is a way of life' and Maya Angelou's art reflects how she lived her life."
"She was able to express in verse the inner compassion and angst that so many people have felt for a generation and make it universal," said Bob Dunkerley, a long-time music educator in Elkins. "She was able to connect with people on an emotional level. She was an inspiration to the younger generation. She represented what we need in our society: we need the poets."
Perhaps most famous for her memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Angelou has been hailed as "a global renaissance woman," and spent her career as a devoted poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, dancer, composer and civil rights activist. Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Mo.
According to the Poetry Foundation, "Angelou attended George Washington High School in San Francisco and took lessons in dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School." She graduated from high school at age 17 and gave birth to a son, Guy, then began work as the first female and black street car conductor in San Francisco.
Angelou later wrote in her memoir, "Singin' and Swingin' and Getting Merry like Christmas," that she worked odd jobs including being a shake dancer at nightclubs, a fry cook in hamburger joints, a dinner cook, as well as "a job in a mechanic's shop, taking the paint off cars with my hands."
"It must have been frustrating for her to have all of this talent inside of her and struggling to find a way to use it," said Bill King, professor of English and head of the Humanitees Division at Davis & Elkins College. "She did everything she could do until she could make it."
Angelou was eventually able to showcase her talents as a performer when she was cast in a a touring production of "Porgy and Bess" from 1954-1955. She turned to writing during this time as well, joining the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s and mingling with acclaimed authors like James Baldwin.
"What made her so popular and accessible to people was that she was not just interested in politics, but she was writing from the perspective of a black woman during segregation and she was able to use that to spread an impulse for freedom," King said. "I think that is relateable to most people. Everybody has some understanding of living your life the way you desire and she captured that in her work.
"She had a beautifully unique and confident voice that made people stop and listen," King added. "She will not only be remembered for her writing, but also for her ability to give a voice to the voiceless."
"I feel such a heartfelt loss at her passing, but also a deep gratitude for what she accomplished," Goux said. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors like Maya Angelou because of her work paving the way we all benefit."