Maya Angelou’s Lifetime of Influence

The pioneer poet receives a National Book Award for lifetime achievement

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Maya Angelou attends the AARP Magazine's 2011 Inspire Awards at the Ronald Reagan Building on Dec. 9, 2010 in Washington, D.C.

She has received more than 30 honorary degrees, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor. But poet Maya Angelou was still clearly delighted to get another, particularly this one—a National Book Award for lifetime achievement. Sitting in an elegant private wood-paned room, waiting for the ceremony to begin at a posh restaurant on Wall Street earlier this week, Angelou explained why the award is especially meaningful. “It’s other writers saying, ‘You’ve done good, kid!” She laughed, and added, “I love the statement of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Easy reading is damn hard work.”

Angelou would know. She is currently writing her 32nd book. “I’m working on a book that’s asking me to be better than I’ve ever been,” Angelou said. “It’s asking me to write better than I’ve ever written, so I’m working at it.” But when asked about the book’s subject, there was that laugh again. ” I don’t think so—not yet.”

(MORE: 10 Questions for Maya Angelou)

The National Book Award ceremony was a red-letter event for the sisterhood of African-American writers, in no small part because of Angelou and Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison, who presented Angelou with the award. “She and I are sister-friends of many, many years,” Angelou said of Morrison. The two ground-breaking writers were pioneers for such younger stars in attendance as poet Nikky Finney and novelist Jesmyn Ward.

In 2011, Finney won a National Book Award for poetry with Head Off & Split. The same year, Ward took one home for fiction with Salvage the Bones.

Veteran Essence magazine book editor Patrik Bass finds strong similarities between the four authors: “They are absolutely fearless writers,” he said, “total wordsmiths. Their stories are rooted very much in a universal search for meaning. They’re doing it through the prism of African-American women.”

Angelou’s writing, said Morrison, “gave license to a host of other African-American writers. It opened the door to our inside, our interior minus the white gaze or sanction.”

After bursting into song with an old spiritual, “God put a rainbow in the clouds,” Angelou closed with a statement true of all of the other gifted black women writers who had followed in her path and who were sharing her special moment: “I have tried to tell the truth as I know it.”