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May 28, 2014

1996: Library will ring out with name of Angelou

Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Eagle on Nov. 22, 1996. Black poet Maya Angelou, whose books have been among those most often challenged by would-be censors at libraries and schools across the country, will be in Wichita next month to have a branch of the city's public library named after her.

Angelou will be in town for a reception Dec. 20 - the time and place are yet to be announced - to mark the christening of the Maya Angelou Northeast Branch Library.

"The reception will be open to everyone, not just by invitation only, " City Council member George Rogers said at a news conference Thursday morning.

The $630,000 building, under construction on the south side of 21st just east of Hillside, should be ready to open by then, Rogers said.

"It's going to be a first-class facility, " he said.

The City Council had to make an exception to its own policy against naming public buildings after people who are still living.

Rogers argued that Angelou's long record of accomplishments _ a body of literary work including her famous autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, " the poem she wrote for President Clinton's 1993 swearing-in ceremony, and a month she spent as a visiting professor at Wichita State University _ justified honoring her.

Her love for libraries and reading, Rogers said, is part of the tragic story of her childhood, recounted in "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." A victim of rape at age 8, Angelou did not speak for five years, blaming herself for the death of the rapist, murdered by enraged neighbors.

The council voted unanimously at Tuesday's meeting to approve Rogers' plan to name the library after Angelou, although council member Sheldon Kamen said he was only going along with it out of respect for Rogers.

"I am really not familiar with her, " Kamen said. "But I'm familiar with you, George. And that's all that matters now."

Many Americans became aware of Angelou for the first time in January 1993 when she read a poem Clinton had commissioned her to write, "On the Pulse of Morning, " at his inauguration.

But Angelou, a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, was well known to many people long before that. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance in "Look Away" on Broadway and was featured as Kunta Kinte's mother in "Roots" on television. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, " the first of her autobiographies, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1970.

Angelou ran into controversy in Kansas in 1994 when Topeka minister Fred Phelps and members of Westboro Baptist Church surrounded her limousine after an appearance in Topeka and taunted her with anti-gay remarks. As a result, Angelou canceled a sold-out speaking engagement scheduled for later that day at Emporia State University.

In 1995, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" ranked along with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain as two of the top three books most often challenged in libraries and schools. Critics of her book claimed it contained sexually explicit scenes, foul language and an irreverent attitude toward religion.

But Angelou's status as a role model for black youth seemed more important to council members this week when they decided to name the library after her.

The new library, on the edge of a predominantly black neighborhood, is part of an effort by city officials and business leaders to bring life to a part of town that has been neglected for decades.

"I believe there is a large group of people that can get a real lift from the inspiration of a person like her, " Mayor Bob Knight said.

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