In tribute to Maya Angelou, we offer the words of one of our reviewers who shares the way the author influenced her life, and the way that encounter shapes her work today. Amy Cheney is a librarian at Alameda County Library, CA, where she serves teens incarcerated at the Alameda Juvenile Hall. One of her primary goals is to connect teens with authors, and she organizes an extensive author visit program.
When I was a teen I met Maya Angelou. At the time, I couldn’t have cared less, in fact, I was outwardly indifferent about it. A neighbor was friends with her, and they invited me to hear her speak in a church basement. I didn’t want to go (I didn’t want to go anywhere), but there I was. It smelled of the old water they used to mop the floor. The windows were around the top of the room, and I stood in the back of the room, watching the feet of the people walking by on the downtown street. My anger grew as I saw the disparity between the high heels, shiny shoes and then dirt encrusted swollen ankles with shoes of rags.
It was a transformative experience for me: I remember clearly not wanting to be there, and yet, as she spoke, her words and, even more, her passion made their way through the hard armor around my heart and it began to crack. I was shocked by this. I had no idea that I was not this hard armor, that there was something underneath this, a soft part of myself, a place that cared deeply and yearned for poetry and expression. I felt such a deep connection with her as a result of this inner experience, I read every book she wrote as it was published.
Because of Maya, when authors come in and talk with my teens now I know that regardless of their outer expression, there may be something much much deeper and transformative going on inside. When they do express their encouragement, enthusiasm and interest I am thrilled.
I still have a heartfelt connection to Maya Angelou. We were able to have her son, Guy Johnson, come in and speak with the youth about his books. Her protege, MK Asante, is currently the most popular author here, bringing alive Maya Angelou and her legacy.
I also recommend Barbara Hoffert’s wonderful article over on the LJ site, Book World Remembers Maya Angelou, which notes the importance of a small-town school library early in her life.