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The Acquisition of a Lifetime: Maya Angelou's Archives Go to Harlem's Schomburg Center

Friday, October 29, 2010

On the path to greatness celebrated by icons from James Baldwin to Oprah, with Grammy's, Presidential medals and 60 honorary degrees, Dr. Maya Angelou has amassed a body of work marked by some of the biggest historical moments of the 20th century. On Friday, Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture officially announced the acquisition of 343 boxes from Dr. Angelou's archives. The boxes include handwritten notes for her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," poems like "Still I Rise" and "Phenomenal Woman," and letters from many of her illustrious fans and contemporaries.

When asked how she felt about parting with letters as intimate as one from James Baldwin mentioning a wistful desire to have had children, Angelou responded with characteristic grace and reverence for education. "I love the works. But love liberates, it doesn't hold fast," she said. "It doesn't say 'I must hold you and own you and keep you,' no, no. As it is, they can be seen and studied by people all over the world."

The Schomburg Center is part of the New York Public Library, which means that after 18 months of processing Angelou's collection will be available to members of a fanbase that is as broad as it is fervent. Howard Dodson, who has directed the Schomburg center since 1984, said he felt the documents were an exceptional addition to more than 10 million documents, photographs and artifacts in the collection.

Dr. Farah Griffin, professor of comparative literature and English at Columbia University, veritably lit up at the mention of Angelou's documents going to Harlem, a neighborhood where the poet spent more than a decade when she was part of the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950's.

"The Schomburg is an institution that the local community really owns and claims," Griffin said. "I'm willing to bet you that on any given Saturday night or Sunday morning at a talent show, or in Sunday school somewhere in Harlem, there is some little girl reciting "Phenomenal Woman" or "Still I Rise." That's a constituency that will be interested in seeing these papers as well."

With the rhythmic delivery and resonance of a person who seems to embody poetry as much as it embodies her, Angelou said she hopes the documents will help further generations know their history. "If you don't know where you parked your car, you really can not say how you're going to get home," she said. "You need to have your own story told. So, collect the data, relish it, keep it and teach it to the children so they know who they are."

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