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Experts available to speak about Maya Angelou's life

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

LAWRENCE — Iconic poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 86, served as a writer-in-residence in 1970 at the University of Kansas for the Department of English.

She spent one week on campus just after publication of her landmark book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," an autobiographical work about her childhood in the Jim Crow South, said Elizabeth Schultz, professor emerita of English. Schultz, the first person to teach an African-American literature class at KU, was asked to escort Angelou around campus.

"It was a week that was absolutely thrilling," Schultz said. "She shared her days with us in multiple ways."

In addition to reading from her autobiography and volunteering to work with the Department of Theatre to show them African dance, Angelou spoke to classes, including Schultz's African-American literature class and James Gunn's fiction-writing class. Gunn, a professor of emeritus of English and chairman of the department's Lecturers and Readers Committee, said Angelou was the only visiting writer he can recall who threw a party for faculty and students in her hotel room.

Schultz recalled walking down Jayhawk Boulevard with Angelou, who was 6 feet tall and adorned in African dress, and how it didn't take long for students to notice them and flood out of buildings on campus to follow them. In preparation for the party she threw in her hotel room, Angelou prepared meatballs one afternoon at Schultz's apartment in downtown Lawrence.

"It was a memorable visit because of her generosity," Schultz said. "She gave of herself, and her writings encouraged others to give of themselves."

Schultz said Professor Edgar Wolfe was instrumental in bringing Angelou to campus after publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It was her first stint as a writer-in-residence at a university.

"It was Ed who really recognized that her writing had the capacity to touch many, many hearts," Schultz said.

To arrange for an interview with Schultz or Gunn about Angelou's visit to KU, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.

Other KU faculty members are available to speak about Angelou's work and career:

Randal Maurice Jelks, professor of American studies and African and African American studies, can speak about Angelou's connection to the civil rights movement. Jelks researches black cultural studies and civil rights history.

"Maya Angelou gave voice to the freedom struggles of black women in the latter half of the 20th century. Like Langston Hughes before her, she was the people's poet and writer," Jelks said. "She gave voice and brought joy to an ongoing struggle for democratic freedoms, especially the beauty of disenfranchised and voiceless women."

John Edgar Tidwell, professor of English, can speak about Angelou's contribution to African-American and American literature, which is the focus of his research.

"Maya Angelo had an extremely difficult beginning, but she went on convert hardship and pain into a lyrical life," Tidwell said. "Her tall brown stature and booming eloquence will be deeply missed but fondly recalled as a legacy of success."

To arrange for an interview with Jelks or Tidwell about Angelou's life, contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.