Gerald Early’s remembrances of Maya Angelou

Acclaimed poet, author spoke at WUSTL three times


Internationally acclaimed author and poet Maya Angelou signs copies of her books after her April 1, 1981, speaking engagement in Washington University’s Graham Chapel. She would give two more talks in Graham Chapel within the coming decade.
(Credit: WUSTL PhOTos)

Noted American essayist and culture critic Gerald L. Early, PhD, has fond remembrances of when he introduced Maya Angelou before one of her three speaking engagements at Washington University in St. Louis.

It was 1984, and Early was a new assistant professor of English and of African and African-American studies, both in Arts & Sciences at the university.

He was asked to introduce the legendary poet, author, actor and civil rights activist when she spoke Feb. 8 during the university’s Assembly Series lecture program in Graham Chapel. Angelou presented a reading of her work and provided commentary for the second annual Chimes (junior honorary society) Lecture.

Of Maya Angelou, pictured here speaking in Graham Chapel in 1981, WUSTL acclaimed poet Carl Phillips said: “Maya Angelou was a living testimony to the power to overcome hardship by believing it possible. ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ established her as a voice for the oppressed and traumatized, in particular, but for women of color especially. Her refusal to give in to difficulty — her insistence on using struggle as a means of gaining strength — has inspired several generations. It’s an inspiration that will surely continue to resonate with readers everywhere.” (Credit: WUSTL Photos)

Early, now the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL, recalled, “I was completely intimidated by her. She was a very larger-than-life person, carried herself like something of a movie star.

“At any rate, she gave a fantastic presentation, combining her literary and theatrical skills seamlessly. Afterwards, she came up to me and told me she liked my introduction. ‘It was worthy of me,’ is exactly what she said,” Early recalled.

“I did not mind her egotism at all. I thought she earned the right to be sort of Norma Desmond-like. I felt pretty pleased with myself because she liked what I said about her. In fact, I was very happy with myself the rest of that day.”

Angelou, a native St. Louisan who died May 28, 2014, at the age of 86, first spoke at Washington University on April 1, 1981, when she delivered the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium keynote address. Her talk was titled “The Many Facets of Maya Angelou.”

She also delivered a third Assembly Series lecture in Graham Chapel Feb. 22, 1990, for the Association of Black Students/Council of Students of Arts & Sciences Lecture. Her talk was part of a series of events at the university commemorating Black History Month.

“I encountered her one or two other times at meetings where I really did not have any interaction with her, but her presence was always something grand,” Early said. “I never met a writer who had such a commanding sense of herself.”

Angelou was the author of more than 30 best-selling titles in verse, fiction and nonfiction, including her first autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which earned a National Book Award nomination.

“‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ will always be one of the great African-American autobiographies ever written, one of the great American autobiographies,” Early said.

“She was one of the few writers, black or white or anything else, who had both a huge popular audience, but also was respected by the literati for her autobiographies, particularly ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’

“Her life was quite an achievement.”

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