A new honor was bestowed upon educator, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery. A painted portrait of the celebrated poet's likeness was unveiled in a private ceremony.
"Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now," one of Angelou's bestselling books of essays, would appropriately summarize such a milestone moment in the author's long career.
At age 86, Angelou has lived through quite a journey. She has been a dancer, singer, educator, actor, author, poet and a figure who transformed the art of the memoir with the release of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" in 1969. The title was nominated for the National Book Award.
Angelou's 1971 collection of poetry "Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water 'Fore I Diiie" was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The poet was also a civil rights activist and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
From a child who suffered trauma and abuse that led her to stop speaking, Angelou transformed into a lyrical poet and activist who gives voice to conditions of the human spirit.
The portrait, completed by artist Ross Rossin, is a photo-realistic painting of Angelou and was a gift to the Smithsonian from former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young. The portrait will add to the legacy, which includes over 30 books, that Angelou will eventually leave behind.
Recognition of that legacy has become increasingly important as Angelou advances in age. In February 2011, President Obama honored the poet with the Presidential Medal of Freedom--the nation's highest civilian accolade. The medal is bestowed upon individuals who have made significant contributions to U.S. national interests and culture.
That objective is one that is shared by the National Portrait Gallery whose goal is to "introduce important Americans in the NPG collection--along with their significant contributions to American society--to visitors of all ages."
Despite its honorable mission, presently the gallery's portraits are admittedly one-sided. According to gallery Director Kim Sajet, women make up only 17 percent of its exhibits. African Americans a mere 4 percent. Angelou expressed just how significant her inclusion into the gallery really is.
"It's an honor for African Americans, of course..."
Guests who came out to witness the unveiling included members of Angelou's own family, along with longtime friend and supporter Oprah Winfrey, actress Cicely Tyson, singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson, and former labor secretary Alexis Herman.
Angelou appeared in a glittering floor-length gown and seated in a wheelchair. Her now trademark dark shades protected her sensitive eyes.
The portrait portrays her much like she is now, with the exception of her shades, and a few less facial wrinkles. It is a snapshot of Angelou in the prime of her dignified beauty.
The portrait will add to the breadth and reach of Angelou's legacy.
"..It's an honor for Jews and Arabs, Irish and Italians--all the people who came to America hoping to leave a portrait of themselves for those who are left to come..." Angelou said.
Kevin Don Porter is a CBS local contributor and the author of the mysteries OVER THE EDGE and MISSING—both available on Amazon.com. Visit his website at www.kevindonporter.com. Friend him on Facebook and Goodreads, and follow him on Twitter: @kevindonporter.