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Winston-Salem remembers Maya Angelou

Posted May 28

— Her poems shaped minds, told of the human condition and spoke eloquently for those unable to pair words with their despair.

But for Earline Parmon, Maya Angelou was also the woman who loved the whiting fish at her Winston-Salem restaurant, Dr. Jay’s.

She, like many others, referred to the quintessential poet as ‘phenomenal.’

“We were very proud of the fact that this wonderful, phenomenal woman could have chosen anywhere in the world, or in the United States, and she chose Winston-Salem,” said Parmon, a state senator representing Forsyth County, where Angelou lived.

Poet. Author. Playwright. Activist. Friend and adviser to some history’s most influential people. Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, passed away at her Winston-Salem home just before 8 a.m. Wednesday. She was 86.

“Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension,” said a statement from her son, Guy B. Johnson, on Angelou’s website. “She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”

Funeral arrangements were not announced as of Wednesday night.

Angelou, the Wake Forest professor

Angelou was known for many of her works, from poems “Still I Rise” and “On the Pulse of Morning,” which she recited at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, to her autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

But in Winston-Salem, she was also known as ‘professor.’

“I’m not a writer who teaches,” she said in a 2008 USA Today interview. “I’m a teacher who writes. But I had to work at Wake Forest to know that.”

Angelou first came to Wake Forest University in 1971 for a speaking engagement. She received an honorary degree from the school six years later before becoming the university’s first Reynolds Professor of American Studies, a lifetime appointment, in 1982.

She taught a number of humanities courses, including “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance,” “Race, Politics and Literature,” “African Culture and Impact on U.S.,” “Race in the Southern Experience,” and “Shakespeare and the Human Condition.” Angelou was scheduled to teach “Race, Culture and Gender in the U.S. South and Beyond” this fall.

“Having Maya Angelou for two classes was the turning point in my life,” said Sona Tatoyan, a filmmaker and former student, on the university’s website. “I started to see the value in being in this outsider-insider situation I had been my whole life. It was like a wake-up bell went off — a call to action in my life.”

Tycely Williams referred to Angelou as her favorite professor.

"She hosted us in her home and always punctuated the affair with food for the soul and the belly," she wrote on a university remembrance website. "One semester, she gifted each of us a leather briefcase with our full name etched in gold script. I remember her saying, 'I want you to go into the world feeling like somebody, I want you to go into the world with your heads high, but your hearts higher. Remember, you have a name. Every human being has a name. Never forget to respect others, just as I have respected you.'”

Angelou was interconnected with Wake Forest University, from directing “Macbeth” for the Wake Forest University Theatre to donating her hand-written work for film, television and theater to the school’s Z. Smith Reynolds Library.

“She brought distinction and her unique grandeur to her 32 years at Wake Forest,” said Edwin Wilson, the university’s provost emeritus, on the school website. ”But– in a quieter way — she was an always generous friend, loving Wake Forest as we did and responding to every request for a speech, an interview, or a conversation with someone who wanted to meet her. And — to the last — she displayed the lifelong courage that she inspired in others, the greatest of all virtues, she said.”

Angelou, the Winston-Salem resident

Angelou lived in an 18-room yellow house on Bartram Road, where attending one of her Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas tree decorating parties or birthday parties placed the attendee in exclusive company, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. It was one of two homes she owned in the city.

Barbee Oakes, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at Wake Forest, remembered the many conversations she had with Angelou at the kitchen table inside the Bartram Road residence.

“Every human being has something in common, and if we are human, then nothing can be alien to us," she remembered the poet telling her.

Angelou was a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church on File Street, where she sometimes brought celebrities to Sunday service.

“When Dr. Angelou came in town, it created a hushed excitement among the kids and adults at church, because we knew Pastor Churn would allow us to experience some of her enchanting words,” wrote Lillie Mae, an Atlanta-based entertainer who was raised in Winston-Salem, on the website rollingout.com. “On occasional Sundays, she would surprise us with a special visit from Oprah or Janet Jackson. My first personal interactions were with international icons who were poised, confident, well-traveled, talented, insanely intelligent and fearless.”

After travelling around the world and living in California, Angelou had no plans of leaving Winston-Salem.

“I put my roots down here,” she said in a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview. “I put my roots down here. My friends are here. My art is here. Naturally, this is home.”

On Wednesday, residents brought tears, flowers, handwritten notes and memories of Angelou, whether in person or otherwise, to a memorial in front of her home.

Gahques Ligons, a fifth grader at Forsyth Academy, brought a class assignment he did last year - a tri-fold posterboard filled with pictures and facts about Angelou.

“It makes people believe in themselves,” he said of the poet’s work. “I don’t need to let people judge who I am and who I am going to be.”

While born in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Ark., many in Winston-Salem will remember Angelou as one of their own.

"She won't be there physically, but I think she has left a spirit in Winston-Salem that we'll always remember,” said Parmon, the state senator.

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  • Naysayer May 29, 8:52 a.m.

    She had a quite a remarkable life, and was an example of how one can triumph in the face of great adversity. Was sad to hear the news yesterday about her passing.

  • jhk0704 May 29, 9:59 a.m.

    What an incredible person.