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Poet Maya Angelou Delivers Her Archives to the Schomburg

By Jeff Mays | October 30, 2010 11:37am | Updated on November 1, 2010 7:21am

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — When she was an abused child on a six-year, self-imposed vow of silence, renowned poet Maya Angelou was taken to a library at a black school.

What she found there changed her life.

The collection of 300 once tattered hand-me-down books from white schools, made pretty with new covers lovingly composed of old shingles and cotton cloth, inspired her. She promised to read every single one.

"I thought: 'Will I live long enough?'" she remembered Friday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on 135th St. at Lenox Avenue in Harlem.

"I don't say I understood those books but I read every book.

"And each time I went to the library, I felt safe. No bad thing can happen to you in the library. You can't be raped or mugged in the library. You can't be talked down to, belittled or humiliated in a library."

Decades later, Angelou said it is only fitting that the abused girl who grew into an internationally famous poet, playwright and author would leave her archives to a library in Harlem where another child may have the same opportunity she did.

"When it looked like the sun wasn't gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds," Angelou said. "A library is a rainbow in the cloud."

"God put the rainbow in the clouds themselves so that in the worst of times, in the meanest of times, in the dreariest of times, so that at all times the viewer can see a possibility of hope. That's what a library is. And in Harlem? Hello," Angelou said to cheers.

The Schomburg will receive more than 300 boxes of Angelou's archives. Included is a draft of Angelou's acclaimed autobiography,"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," in which she recounts her abuse and silence.

An edited draft of the poem she read at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, "On the Pulse of Morning," shows how the opening line, "Rocks, Rivers, Trees," became "A Rock, A River, A Tree."

There are also personal effects, including an inspirational poem written for Angelou's good friend and one of her "beloveds," Oprah Winfrey, entitled "Continue."

The drafts, some written in Angelou's own pen, show how she reworked and rephrased sentences, scenes and stanzas until they were just right.

Howard Dodson, the long-time director of the Schomburg who is to retire in February, said the papers were of a "lofty and historically significant caliber." Of particular interest will be Angelou's correspondences with historical figures the world over, said Dodson.

"We at the Schomburg Center and at the New York Public Library are honored to have been chosen by her to be the permanent depository of this extraordinary collection," Dodson said.

Paul LeClerc,  president of the NYPL, said he couldn't wait for the transfer and kept asking Dodson if the negotiations were complete.

Dodson said the negotiations have taken a little over three years and that Angelou's collection will be display for the public in about 18 months.

LeClerc praised Dodson and the Schomburg for having acquired some of the New York Public Library's most distinguished collections, including those of playwright Lorrainne Hansberry and Malcolm X.

"The subject of the collection, Dr. Maya Angelou is herself one of those extraordinary figures of 20th and 21st century life," he said.

"She along with Martin, Malcolm and Marcus are one of a kind personalities. There's only one Dr. Angelou and, for most of the world, like Martin, Malcolm and Marcus, there is only one Maya," LeClerc said.

Angelou, who owns and frequently visits a brownstone in the Mount Morris Park historic district, entertained the crowd with tales of her experiences with James Baldwin in New York City and Malcolm X in Ghana. She said she has had a long connection with the Schomburg and Dodson.

"When I saw what Howard Dodson was doing at the Schomburg....he opened the Schomburg to the community. He allowed people to come in with jeans, in shorts, barefoot," she said.

"I began to support it in every way possible. When I had something of value, I gave it to the library. Anything that came to my hands legitimately, I gave to the library."

That effort culminates with her archives, Angelou said.

"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.

Skye Bolden, 16, an 11th grader at Thurgood Marshall Academy, said Angelou was "wise" and that she was glad her archives would be in Harlem to "influence future generations of kids."

The ceremony was attended by Angelou's good friends, storied Motown song writers Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Also on hand was Ntozake Shange, whose play Obie award-winning play"For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" has been made into a forthcoming movie by Tyler Perry.

Shange called the effort to preserve Angelou's work "inspiring." It has caused her to begin thinking about where her archives will land. The Schomburg, she said, is one of her top choices.

"I hope to be here," Shange said of archives being held at the Schomburg. "We are working it out now."