Columbus residents mourn famed poet Maya Angelou

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 28, 2014 

Alva James-Johnson

Jenn Collins of Columbus will never forget the days she spent with the world-renowned poet Maya Angelou 20 years ago.

When Collins was a sociology student at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., she took a workshop titled "The Philosophy of Liberation in Literature." Angelou was the professor.

First Angelou had everyone in the class stand up and introduce themselves. Then she made each scholar repeat the names of all the other students.

Collins said it was a terrifying experience that seemed futile at first, but Angelou felt it was important.

"She said, 'The greatest gift you could give another human being is to recognize their identity,'" Collins recalled. "I mean, it was so powerful. There was just silence, and you could hear a pin drop in the room. That has stuck with me 20 years later."

Collins, 40, is director of outreach and education for the Chattahoochee Riverwarden. She is among those in the Columbus metropolitan area mourning the death of Angelou, a beloved African-American poet, autobiographer, playwright, actress, dancer and civil rights activist. Angelou died Wednesday morning at 86.

"She is one of only two people who I've ever met who you literally felt (her presence) when she walked in the room," said Collins, referring to a similar experience she had years ago with a director at the Springer Theater. "It's like the air changed around her when she came through the door."

'Phenomenal Woman'

Robert "Nick" Norwood is a local poet who teaches creative writing at Columbus State University. He said he exposes his students to Angelou's writings in composition and poetics courses.

"Her autobiography, 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' is a powerful document about her experiences as an African-American in a small town in the Deep South before civil rights," Norwood said. "It reached a lot of people, and I would say that it was one of the most important books of its kind in that respect in American literature."

Norwood said he sometimes asks students to bring in poems written by their favorite poets, and it's usually the case that more than one student brings in a poem by Angelou. The poems usually include "Phenomenal Woman" and "Still I Rise."

"Her poetry is very important in that she was able to encapsulate the experience of people who have suffered from oppression and from being under-appreciated and undervalued and wrote in a direct and musical language that people could connect to," Norwood said. "Her poem, 'Phenomenal Woman,' has become one of the most iconic poems in 20th century American literature. It's widely read in high school and college and it's a poem of empowerment that's reaching a really wide audience and is being embraced by young women -- especially young African-American women -- but also women of all races."

Kornisha Brown is president of the local chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., which empowers youth through leadership development, cultural heritage and community service. She said the organization continues to use Angelou's writings to inspire youths in the program. She called Angelou's death heartbreaking.

"What she did for our world through her words and just through her love for humanity will never be forgotten," Brown said.

Gabrion Myers, a 34-year-old private duty caregiver, said she had never met Angelou personally, but she cried Wednesday when she heard the poet had died. Myers said Angelou's writings helped her overcome low self-esteem and made her a better woman and mother.

"You don't get that these days. You get all the disrespectful things you could find to say about a woman," said Myers, who now also writes poetry. "But she just spoke like we were queens, no matter our skin color or hair color -- no matter what. A female is a queen and that's what I consider myself because of her."

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