An event this weekend in southwest Arkansas will celebrate the life and legacy of African American poet and author Maya Angelou, who died earlier this year at the age of 86.
She was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928, but with the end of her parent’s marriage at the age of three, Angelou was sent to live with her grandmother in southwest Arkansas.
"From about 1931 until about 1941 she was just a little girl in Stamps, Arkansas and that’s where she started her amazing journey to be a world-famous poet and author," said David Ray Bright, who is mayor of the town today. "The words speak for themselves."
Stamps was the setting for much of her autobiographical bestseller "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
Janis Kearney, chair of the Celebrate Maya Project, says it was at times a painful period for the young girl.
"Her childhood was, based on her book, it was very… it was the south. I grew up in the south, so I related completely. We have gone from a south that had its tragedies and its historical negatives to a south that’s growing and getting better. And that’s the south that she grew up in as well," Kearney said.
In the book, Angelou wrote vividly about her experiences with racism and about being raped as an eight-year-old girl by her mother’s boyfriend. Four days after his release from jail he was murdered, it’s believed by Angelou’s uncles. She then became mute, not speaking for almost five years.
Dr. Akasha Hull is among the organizers of this weekend’s event and says through writings later in life, Angelou was able to come to terms with what happened.
"With the power that literature has to change our lives, Maya Angelou is a wonderful example of that because she had the courage to speak out about really thorny and controversial issues like childhood abuse and to show how you can turn something like debilitating and oppressive silence into a voice that champions liberty and freedom for everybody," Hull said.
Saturday’s celebration is being held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lafayette County High School, with seating for up to a thousand people.
Kearney says they’ve been organizing it since Angelou passed away on May 28 to serve as a memorial and celebration of her life.
"This is an amazingly important event for us, we’ve been working, trying to get this done with Mayor Bright and we are so grateful to Mayor Bright for bringing Maya Angelou home to Stamps, Arkansas. This means a lot," Kearney said.
Part of the ceremony will include a message from former President Bill Clinton, who was born in the nearby town of Hope. Clinton included Angelou in his 1993 inauguration, where she read one of her works.
"He’s intimately involved and tremendously supportive and we’re very happy that we have people on the committee who have his ear," Hull said of Clinton. "Of course this is the kind of thing that he would want to have something to say about because if you remember, Maya Angelou was the poet for his inauguration and read her wonderful poem “On The Pulse of Morning."
The town has been working to make a lasting memorial, so future generations who live in the town will know her connection to Stamps.
"Back in June we dedicated a park there at Lake June which was the pond in Maya Angelou’s days and that’s where she went as a little girl to contemplate her future. So we’re going to make that a park," Mayor Bright said. "It’s about a hundred acres including the lake, so it’s going to be a place where people can come to be where she was as a little girl."
Angelou's grandson Elliot Jones will be a special guest during Saturday's ceremony. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vesper Choir and the Hope Public School Drum Ballet will perform, followed by the announcement of the winners of a poetry contest.
The "Celebrate Maya!" Project has included a group of authors, artists, community leaders and others who came together to honor her legacy.
"We know what Maya Angelou’s contributions to this world have been and she’s ours," said Kearny. "We wanted to make sure that we celebrated her life and her legacy and her lessons and we want to share that with Stamps, with Arkansas and with the world.”
Details of Saturday's event can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/celebratemaya