Maya Angelou's Handwritten Drafts and Letters Among Archive at Schomburg
HARLEM — The July 11, 1964 letter Maya Angelou sent to Malcolm X is written on University of Ghana letterhead. In it, she asks the civil rights leader to be the person to speak with African dignitaries on behalf of American blacks because she fears she doesn't have the same credibility.
Angelou said she was worried that the leaders would ask "Who do you represent?" she wrote in the letter, which went on to say her stock reply of "20 million black souls reaching for freedom" might cause more harm than good.
"She says to him 'You are the one who has to give the speech because people will respect your voice,'" said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "It shows you in real time that these are real people trying to figure out in the moment how to get things done."
The letter is just one piece of 232 boxes of Angelou's archives now being processed at the Schomburg at Lenox Avenue and 135th Street. Angelou, a poet, writer and activist who died Wednesday at the age of 86, donated the treasure trove of materials in 2010, saying she wanted to inspire future generations of young people.
"Of the stories in my life, those that I've written about and some that I've whispered about and some written about me, I'm glad to present all of that to the Schomburg," Angelou said during a 2010 ceremony at the Schomburg marking the donation.
Now that the world is mourning Angelou's passing, Muhammad said the library has a huge stake in helping define her legacy.
"Part of what we do is not just to collect and preserve but we also interpret," he said. "The urgency now is to help the interpretation of her life, to inspire scholars and writers and school children."
The research library believes it has the largest collection of Angelou's papers, said Steven Fullwood, assistant curator at the Schomburg who called the archive "massive in size and significance."
Because Angelou lived a rich life as an actress, singer, political activist, dancer, poet and writer, there are likely to be other materials out there that cover the various aspects of her life, they said.
What makes the Schomburg's Angelou collection formidable are the handwritten and typewritten drafts — complete with editing marks — of some of Angelou's most famous works such as her first autobiographical volume "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and the poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she read at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993.
The handwritten drafts of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" are written in pen on yellow legal pads. A typewritten first draft is yellowed with dog-eared pages and editing marks in green pen.
In a hand-edited and typed draft of "On the Pulse of Morning" the first line, a flowing "Rocks and Rivers and Trees" is traded in for the adamantine "A Rock, A River, A Tree" with just a few pen strokes.
Viewing the incremental changes on Angelou's works allows scholars to see her mind at work as she tweaked stanzas and paragraphs, verbs and commas, to her liking.
"I'm nosy. I want to know what's behind the scenes," said Fullwood who described the work of cataloging Angelou's papers as "peeking into her process" and allowing the public to understand the nuances of her work.
Having the manuscripts that show the "process of creation and editing is really the gold standard," added Muhammad. "You want to see them working it out."
The collection also includes handwritten manuscripts or galleys from several of Angelou's published works such as "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "Heart of a Woman."
Letters between Angelou and people such as author James Baldwin and filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks are part of the collection along with a thank you note from Coretta Scott King, and fan mail.
The collection arrived in 2011 and has been made available to researchers. It should be fully processed with a guide to the collection and a catalog within a year, Muhammad said.
In the meantime, the Schomburg is putting together a pop-up exhibit of Angelou's papers to be displayed in the lobby starting on Friday.
Muhammad is hoping that seeing Angelou's works in progress will send a strong message to young people that creating art that affects people's lives can be a "messy" process.
"You don't have to be perfect," said Muhammad. "You just have to be committed to telling your story."