Maya Angelou, a legendary writer, poet, activist and orator, died Wednesday, May 27, at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.
She was 86 years old.
Angelou, who is best known for her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” broke ground in American literature as one of the first writers to document the experience of African American women in the United States, said professor Ann Hostetler of Goshen College, who teaches an African American literature class and has taught “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in the past.
"...’I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ provided, for many readers, a first introduction to African American women’s writing, and for many others, a confirmation that the experience of a young African American girl was a worthy subject for literature," Hostetler wrote in an email.
Johnalisa Broadnax, who works at the Elkhart Public Library and is an Angelou fan, said she was devastated when she heard about the writer’s death.
"I’ve read all of her work, and I love it,” Broadnax said. "...To me, personally, [her work] meant I could read books, stories and poems from people such as myself, who I can relate to as an African American female.”
Broadnax’s favorite of Angelou’s work is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” However, Broadnax said her reach went far beyond her most widely-known piece of literature.
"She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind," Broadnax said. "She could get things done. There’s a way you can talk to people where they listen – she had that type of personality. You would just listen to what she had to say. I think she brought a shift in American literature. She helped bring women writers to the forefront, especially women writers of color."
According to Hostetler, Angelou had the ability to address sensitive issues in a way that touched people and made them think.
"Moreover, ["I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"] voices Angelou’s experience with childhood sexual abuse, her trauma and the five years of silence she observed after her abuser was murdered," Hostetler wrote. "Her frank treatment of the experience through a child’s perspective opened up this subject for millions of readers in a profoundly sensitive and affecting way."
Hostetler said Angelou’s work helped shape the way autobiographies are written. It vividly portrayed African American life and culture, while addressing issues like racism, sexism and personal courage, Hostetler said.
"Angelou’s powerful sense of voice and stage presence, and her ability to move between the arts on stage and on the page, her advocacy for women and for African American arts, and above all for the resilience and beauty of the human spirit has touched our country profoundly,” Hostetler said. “She has been and will continue to be an incredible example of what the human spirit can achieve.”
If you’d like to read some of Angelou’s work, here are a few of Hostetler and Broadnax’s recommendations: