Maya Angelou at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo by Paul Morigi/AP for the National Portrait Gallery.
In collaboration with Smithsonian colleagues from the National Museum of African Art, the National Portrait Gallery hosted an event on Saturday, April 5, in which both museums paid tribute to Maya Angelou, one of the most revered poets in the United States. Angelou, whose eighty-sixth birthday was April 4—the day before—commented on what she considered was one of her great achievements over eight decades—patience. “You can only have patience if you have courage,” she stated, adding that “Reverend [Martin Luther] King had great patience.”
During the event at the McEvoy Auditorium in the Donald W. Reynolds Center, a portrait of Angelou by Atlanta-based artist Ross Rossin was unveiled. Assisting Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet and NMAfA director Johnnetta Cole in the unveiling was Angelou’s friend and protégé Oprah Winfrey. Guests in attendance included actress Cicely Tyson, activist Julian Bond, and former ambassador Andrew Young.
Angelou discussed the works and humanity of Martin Luther King at length; King, who was killed on Angelou’s fortieth birthday, was a great friend of the author and a colleague in the fight for civil rights. Of him she also noted, “People can only do what they know to do. Reverend King did what he knew to do. He was compassionate; he was kind.” Angelou spoke at length on civil rights, and her discussion culminated in the observation that the fight for rights includes work on behalf of all protected classes (protected class is the legal term used to describe a group of people who are protected from discrimination by federal law), regardless of gender, race, religion, and individuals with physical and mental challenges. “We need more people involved in the civil rights movement—civil rights, not just race rights.”
As she notes in her seminal memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou understood from a young age the difficulties of being an African American in the United States of the 1930s: “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” Themes of displacement and pain are not uncommon in African American literature, and those are subjects of much of Angelou’s discourse. Her work is poignant, complex, and important.
Angelou now enjoys the privileged status of national literary treasure. In 1993 she became the first poet since Robert Frost to read at a presidential inauguration. Immediately after President Bill Clinton took the oath of office on January 20, she read “On the Pulse of Morning,” a work she wrote for the occasion. In that work, Angelou expresses hope overcoming horrors, and inclusion overcoming the abject past of marginalization, slavery, and othering:
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,
The German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
The Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare,
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree,
I am yours—your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Angelou’s passions span many disciplines; she has been nominated for a Tony and an Emmy, and in 2013 she received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award. She has also received dozens of honorary degrees, and in 2011 President Barack Obama rewarded Angelou’s lifetime of achievement with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery