NEW YORK — Poet, author and human rights activist Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at the age of 86, was considered by many a literary giant. But to residents of Harlem, a largely African American New York neighborhood where she sometimes lived, the author of “Why The Caged Bird Sings” and other works is especially mourned.
While Maya Angelou received dozens of awards and honorary degrees, she came from the humblest of beginnings in the racially segregated South - having worked as a streetcar conductor, fry cook and calypso performer among other jobs during her youth.
On a city bus riding through Harlem, Rayna Clay-Cuffee remembered Angelou from a half century ago, when they were both nightclub singers.
"And then the years went by, and then I was there when she spoke at the inauguration for [President] Clinton," she said. "So she’s been around a long time. She’s a wonderful woman, extremely intelligent, and she used her intelligence for the world."
Joanathan, who also was riding the bus, admired Angelou for her wisdom and compassion. He said that while her writing often expressed the challenges she and other African Americans faced in their struggle for equality, she felt an underlying bond to all peoples.
“And they can coexist in one. People always make the mistake of saying ‘that race did that’ or ‘that one ain’t no good.’ But we are one human race. And that’s what she understood," said Joanathan.
On 125th Street, Harlem’s busy main thoroughfare, “Lord Harrison,” a hip hop artist, sold his CDs to passersby. He credited Maya Angelou’s poetry and public acclaim with helping to pioneer his musical genre.
“She paved the way! Without her doing her thing and opening the way and ‘bustin’ with the moves,’ as we like to say, hip hop wouldn’t be invented. It wouldn’t have happened. She did it! She is a true American icon," he said.
Nearby, the marquee of the famed Apollo Theater, where the Jackson Five, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and other stars played, noted in big black letters Maya Angelou's passing.
In-house historian Billy Mitchell, who has worked there for 49 years, remembers meeting her.
“What a regal lady she was! Very graceful. That beautiful smile. ‘How are you,
young man?’ I could have melted right there," he said. "Because I meet so many people here and there are just a few that really make me feel a little strange and giddy and groupie-like. And she was one of those people that did that for me, absolutely. "We all adored Maya. Her words made us feel proud. She understood our struggle. She understood what it was like to be poor and to be hungry and she made something of herself. Young kids are still reciting her poetry: ‘and still I rise. I rise. I rise.'"
Plans for Maya Angelou’s funeral have not been released.