Angelou, besides being a dancer, actress, filmmaker, singer and activist, has made historic contributions to reading and writing. “Caged Bird” is among the most widely read and widely taught memoirs of the past half-century, memorably documenting her rise from the rural, segregated South to international fame. Her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning,” which she recited in 1993 at President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural, quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
“What I have always wanted is to be of use,” Angelou said. “I will not be abused. I will not be misused — not willingly. But I will be of use. Anybody who is not of use is useless.”
But she has never won such top literary prizes as the Pulitzer or PEN/Faulkner and has never even been a nominee for a National Book Award, although she did serve with historians Robert Caro and Robert K. Massie as a judge in 1978 on the committee for best biography/autobiography. (The winner was W. Jackson Bate’s biography of the 18th-century English critic Samuel Johnson.)
Angelou said she never worried about literary honors and that she always felt grateful for the winners.
“I know that makes me sound like all goody two-shoes,” she said. “But only one name can be chosen for a prize. … And, here now, I’m getting an award from the National Book Foundation for lifetime achievement of service to the community! It’s a blessing. It’s incredible.”
A long list of nominees in the four competitive categories for the National Book Awards, which the Book Foundation presents, will be announced later this month. Angelou, whose primary residence is in North Carolina, has been in frail health and is expected to only make a brief appearance at the awards dinner and ceremony on Nov. 20.