WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — In the quiet bookstore at Wake Forest University, student Mazella Sloan reads out lines from her favorite Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal Women.” With a song-like cheer of sass and empowerment, the rhyming lines begin:
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.”
“Isn’t that awesome?” Sloan says.
Angelou, 86, died Wednesday. It was the first day of lectures for the summer classes at Wake Forest, the poet and American Studies professor’s creative and academic home.
“I felt like she was describing me and her, and it made me feel like she was talking about me,” said the rising junior from Laurel Hill. “Every woman thinks she has flaws, but every woman is phenomenal.”
Angelou was known throughout the world as a literary pioneer and champion of civil rights. At Wake Forest University and in Winston-Salem, where she lived, students and professors remembered her as a hero on campus, a gracious mentor and friend, a warm hostess, and a beloved and inspirational teacher.
Her poems put a strong voice of insight into the American, African-American and human experience, showcasing themes of rising up, of survival, said Dr. Mary DeShazer, a Wake Forest professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies who worked with Angelou.
The intimacy with which Angelou wrote resonates with all kinds of people, even those who have no background in literature or poetry, DeShazer said.
Angelou cultivated that intimacy with her students by teaching a class at her home in which students would first memorize, then perform poems.
Every student who took her class said it was a remarkable experience, said DeShazer, who described Angelou as “very down to earth.”
“She was generous, warm, funny,” DeShazer said.
Angelou began teaching at Wake Forest University in 1982, after she first visited the university to read her work. In addition to teaching students, she mentored other professors and faculty at the university, DeShazer said. Angelou also took the time to read DeShazer’s book as it was getting published and wrote a foreword for it, she said.
Angelou lived about a mile from the university in a yellow, two-story contemporary home fronted by a wall with a gated entrance to the driveway. She loved to cook and routinely hosted Thanksgiving dinner and birthday parties for friends and their families. On Wednesday afternoon, a bouquet of tulips with a note reading, “Maya, thank you for teaching us joy!” could be seen at the edge of the driveway.