May 28, 2014

1996: Hundreds line up to see Angelou christen Wichita library bearing her name

Editor's note: This story was originally published in The Eagle on Dec. 21, 1996.

If Maya Angelou left only the smallest trace of herself - the tiniest vibration from that awesome, boundless voice as she chanted and sang and roared with laughter in the walls of Wichita's new northeast branch library Friday - that blessed building will stand solid for a century or more.

And if the hundreds of people who came to see her, lined up in the cold and peered through windows and doors when there was no more room inside kept anything of hers in their hearts when they left, then they will not soon forget the week before Christmas 1996 and the gift she brought them.

When they sit in that library - or any library - they will feel that sense of sanctuary, that connection to all human experience that Angelou says saved her life and might save their lives someday, too.

When they read to their children, they will hear her urging them not to put the book down, not to give into fatigue or indifference, not to leave their children alone in a bewildering electronic wasteland.

They will hear her speaking.

"The human voice is so powerful, " she said, "so very powerful. Much more powerful than the sword - or the pen."

The celebration of the christening of the Maya Angelou Northeast Library at 21st and Hillside felt and sounded more like a church revival than a mere formality in opening of a new public building.

She sang to them.

I open my mouth

to the Lord

And I won't turn back, no.

I will go, I shall go.

I'll see what the end is going to be.

She chanted.

She does not know her beauty

And thinks her brown body has no glory.

If she could dance naked under palm trees

And see her image in the river

She would know.

But there are no palm trees on the street

And dishwater gives back no images.

And she confessed.

It was an old story to anyone who had read her best-selling book, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." How, when she was only a child, she had named the man who raped her. How he was beaten to death for what he had done.

"I thought my voice had killed him, " she said. "So I stopped speaking. I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill somebody randomly."

How her mother's family had given up on her, a sullen mute, and sent her back to Stamps, Ark., to live with her maternal grandmother, whom she called "Mama."

"She said, 'Sister, Mama don't care what these people say about you can't talk, that you must be an idiot, you must be a moron. Sister, Mama don't care. Mama knows when you and the good Lord get ready you gonna be a preacher.' "

It is a strong story. Strong enough, in fact, to make "Caged Bird" one of those books that some people are always trying to ban. So strong it is hard to believe it is written by a woman who wants, more than anything else, to reach children, and who is, more than anything else, a teacher.

She told the people at the library about her speeches earlier in the day at South High and East High.

"Those children . . . were just sitting in my hands, as if they were the last raw eggs in the world, " she said. "So beautiful. And they listened."

And she explained why naming a library for a living writer - a black woman - was so important to her in more than merely a personal way.

She told them her theory that two children - one black and the other white, both the same in every other way - may enter school together and soon find themselves far apart.

She said: "The white child looks up on the wall and the portraits look like his grandfather. The black child looks up and there's nobody that looks like her or him. Years pass and they open the book, and the portraits in the book do not look like the girl or boy, the black one. Sooner or later the white boy or girl must think: This is my stuff. And the other children have to think: This is not my stuff. So by fourth grade, the black boy starts to back up. He says: I'm not in this. You all have this."

All writers, from herself to Shakespeare, belong to all children, she said. There should be no lines drawn, she said. And it's so easy to make a mistake, she said, like the California school system that has declared black dialect a second language.

"I'm incensed, " she said, during an interview Friday afternoon at the house of her friend George Rogers. "The very idea that African-American language is a language separate and apart is very threatening. Because it can encourage young men and women not to learn standard English."

After the ceremony at the library, Angelou was the guest of honor at a reception in the ballroom on the third floor of the Campus Activities Center at Wichita State University.

Hundreds of people showed up to ask her to sign autographs and hundreds more were still waiting in line when, after about an hour and a half, she apologized and said she could do no more.

Related content


Editor's Choice Videos