Talking to Maya Angelou’s Son About the New Award Named in Her Honor
Announcing the Nominees For the Maya Angelou Book Award
A new literary award out of Kansas City will give annually alternating accolades to American fiction and poetry focusing on social justice and inclusion. The Kansas City Public Library and six Missouri universities have partnered to offer the $10,000 Maya Angelou Book Award.
Of the more than one hundred nominees, five poets have been selected as finalists in the inaugural year: John Murillo for Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry; Kaveh Akbar for Pilgrim Bell; Natalie Diaz for Postcolonial Love Poem; Shane McCrae for Sometimes I Never Suffered; and Threa Almontaser for The Wild Fox of Yemen.
Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, sees a great deal of potential in the award to honor his mother’s legacy. He hopes the winner is someone who understands the “importance of investing in humans.”
And while Angelou was born in Missouri, Johnson says his mother’s home was the United States of America, so the award’s reflection of her attitude about writing is more significant than its geographic origin.
“Her attitude was: ‘I write from the Black experience, but I aim for the human heart,’” Johnson explained. “She was about humans and the love of humans.”
Poet John Murillo, assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Wesleyan University, is deeply honored to be a finalist for the award for his second collection.
He said that writers are not owed anything, but this type of recognition lets him know that his work is reaching people and that they’re responding.
“Throughout my writing life, I write from and about and to the lives of primarily people in urban situations, so there’s always an aspect of social justice in that sense,” Murillo said.
Johnson, who continues to write but is retired from 30 years of public service, says the United States has not been “extremely inclusive.”
“The reality is, any time we do inclusiveness, I think we’re following the path of God. You know what my mother used to say when I was growing up? She said, ‘Imagine a world where every child born is allowed to see and realize their light. We would be flying to the stars. We’d have the cure for cancer. We’d be able to treat our planet like it is our mother,’” Johnson said.
Angelou authored 36 books, and was a Pulitzer Prize nominee and the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 2014 at 86 years old.
Novelist Whitney Terrell, an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, oversaw the creation of the award with Phong Nguyen, an English professor and director of creative writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Carrie Coogan, the Kansas City Public Library’s deputy director for public affairs and community engagement.
The winner will be announced on October 20 at Writers for Readers, a yearly celebration of literature co-sponsored by the Kansas City Public Library and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Writers for Readers has been a critical fundraising component for the award.
In the fall of 2021, the winning poet will give a reading tour of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Kansas City, as well as the other four contributing universities: Truman State, Missouri State, Southeast Missouri State, and Northwest Missouri State.