Maya Angelou on How a Library Saved Her Life
By Maria Popova
“You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her poems celebrating libraries and librarians. “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her beautiful essay on the sacredness of public libraries. “When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction to this photographic love letter to public libraries, “democracy is open, too.”
But no one has articulated, nor lived, this liberating and salvational function of libraries more fully than Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014).
In the autumn of 2010, shortly before Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — a research division of the New York Public Library — acquired her papers. She visited NYPL for a public event celebrating the occasion, during which she broke into song to illustrate the life-saving role libraries have always played in the lives of the people during the darkest of times. She went on to share the story of how a library had saved her own life as a child.
When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore
God put a rainbow in the clouds
Look at that — look at that! That’s a library — a library is a rainbow in the clouds.
We know that some, from the 19th-century, African-American lyricist and poet was inspired by a statement in the em>Genesis. In the Genesis we are told that rain persisted so unrelentingly that people thought it would never cease. And in an attempt to put the people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky.
That’s in Genesis. But in the 19th century, some African-American lyricist, a poet — probably a woman, I don’t know — said, “No. God didn’t just put the rainbow in the sky.” We know that rainbows, suns, moons, stars — all sorts of illuminations — are always in the firmament, but clouds can so lower and lour so that the viewer cannot see the light. So God put the rainbow in the clouds themselves — 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.
It is amazing, for me, to have been taken to a library when I was eight. I had been abused and I returned to a little village in Arkansas. And a black lady … knew I wasn’t speaking — I refused to speak — for six years I was a volunteer mute. She took me to library in the black school. The library probably had 300 books — maybe. The books were given to the black school from the white school and, often, there were no backs on the books. So we took shingles, cut them down to the size of the book, got some cotton and then pretty cloth, and covered those shingles and then laced them from the back, so that the books were beautiful. And those were the books she took me to see. She said, “I want you to read every book in this library.”
It seemed to me thousands of books. I have now, in my home in North Carolina, a library of about 4,000 books. But at that time, I thought, “Can I get to it? Will I live long enough?” I don’t say I understood those books, but I read every book, and each time I [would] go to the library, I felt safe. No bad thing can happen to you in the library.
In an interview with the New York Public Library’s Angela Montefinise to mark the occasion of the acquisition of her papers, Dr. Angelou added:
All information belongs to everybody all the time. It should be available. It should be accessible to the child, to the woman, to the man, to the old person, to the semiliterate, to the presidents of universities, to everyone. It should be open.
Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.
Complement with this wonderful oral history of how libraries save lives and Mary Oliver on how reading saved her, then revisit Dr. Angelou on courage and facing evil, her moving letter to her younger self, her children’s book about overcoming fear, illustrated by Basquiat, and her abiding wisdom identity and the meaning of life.
UPDATE: See A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — a collection of 121 letters to children by some of the most inspiring humans of our time about the transformative power of reading, with all proceeds benefiting the New York public library system.
Published November 18, 2016