Library Joins State Universities in Establishing Maya Angelou Book Award, Spotlighting Social Justice

Friday, October 30, 2020
Library Joins State Universities in Establishing Maya Angelou Book Award, Spotlighting Social Justice

A new national Maya Angelou Book Award, established by the Kansas City Public Library and six Missouri universities, will recognize authors and notable new releases of American fiction and poetry focusing on social justice and inclusion.

An inaugural winner will be selected and announced in November 2021. The yearly award comes with a $10,000 stipend.

The new literary honor was unveiled during the annual Writers for Readers presentation held online by the Library and the University of Missouri-Kansas City's MFA Program in Creative Writing on Thursday, October 29. Proceeds from that event go in part toward the award.

Joining the Library and UMKC in creating the award are the University of Missouri-Columbia, Missouri State University, and Northwest Missouri State, Truman State, and Southeast Missouri State universities. Winning authors and poets will conduct two-week, fall-semester reading tours of the partnering educational institutions.

The prize takes its name from the acclaimed, St. Louis-born memoirist, poet, and civil rights activist best known for her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, died in 2014.

“I’m honored by it, and I know that she would be, too. This is the kind of award she would have held close to her heart,” says Angelou’s son, Guy Bailey Johnson. “Anytime people devote thought to being creative in the name of justice, it’s good work. We need that human sensitivity and involvement at this time more than we have in many years.”

Library Director John Herron echoes that. “Our country has long struggled with social equity and justice, difficult issues so eloquently illustrated in Maya Angelou’s prose and poetry,” he says. “Many contemporary writers and poets are now adding their voices to hers, lending invaluable context, understanding, and vision. The best, most impactful of those works should be recognized.

“With this award,” he says, “we are doing just that."

The Maya Angelou Book Award will alternately be presented to an American fiction writer and poet – leading off with poetry in 2021. Selection rests on:

· Literary merit – contribution of the work to American literature.

· Significance – how the writer and work “reflect the commitment to social justice exemplified by Maya Angelou’s work and life.”

· Inclusion – how the work “serves to enrich the diversity of American literature.”

A 14-person selection committee, with members from the partnering universities and the Library, will select three finalists, and the winner will be chosen by an external judge.

The selection will be announced at the next Writers for Readers event in November 2021.

Overseeing the award are Whitney Terrell, an associate professor of English at UMKC; Phong Nguyen, an English professor and director of creative writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia; Carrie Coogan, the Library’s deputy director for public affairs and community engagement; and Kaite Stover, the Library’s director of readers’ services.


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