Guy Johnson, the son of trailblazing poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 77. In a statement on Maya Angelou’s Facebook page, the esteemed scholar’s family said Johnson passed away peacefully at his home in Oakland, California. His cause of death was, however, not revealed.
“Mr. GUY JOHNSON passed away peacefully at his home this morning in Oakland, California,” the statement read. “Arrangements will be made and announced in the coming days. We ask that you respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time. Thank you for your prayers and words of comfort and strength.”
Angelou gave birth to Johnson when she was 17. And just like his mother, the 77-year-old was also a poet and an author.
In April last year, Johnson worked with Wake Forest University to establish the Maya Angelou Artist-in-Residence Award to pay homage to his mother’s legacy, the Winston-Salem Journal reported.
“We are saddened by the loss of Maya Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, and send our sincere condolences to his family,” Wake Forest University said in a statement on Thursday. “Mr. Johnson was a good friend to Wake Forest and recently worked with the university to establish the Maya Angelou Artist-in-Residence Award to honor his mother’s legacy, celebrate exceptional artists and inspire future generations of Wake Forest students.
“We look forward to making the first award this fall,” the university added.
In an interview with KRON on February 14, Johnson spoke about his deceased mother making history as the first Black woman on a U.S. quarter. The 77-year-old was very instrumental in picking Angelou’s depiction on the coins. The quarter depicts the poet with her arms lifted. Behind her is a flying bird and rising sun.
“One of the reasons I chose that image is, first off, I know how difficult it is to capture the actual essence and animus of a human being on a metal coin, and I thought that picture with the bird behind her, the wings and her arms out gave some sense of the style that she had, the grace that she had,” he said.
“She was a dancer for many years, and I really thought that was the best image of her.”
Prior to her death, Angelou, in an interview with the Associated Press, recalled how Johnson almost became paralyzed after he got involved in an accident. He sustained spinal injuries which required several surgeries and had to walk with crutches for years.
“Guy Johnson is a wonder. He’s been physically challenged. He was paralyzed from his neck down at one point. The doctors had told me your son, he will never move again, he will never walk again. I said my son will walk out of this hospital,” Angelou said at the time.
And though she was optimistic, Angelou recalled Johnson told her he did not want to continue living if he wasn’t able to walk again.
“I walked into the intensive care and my son said, ‘Mom, that which I feared is upon me.’ I can hear it now and this is 40 years later. He said, ‘Mom, I have to ask you a favor no one should ever ask their mother. I know I’m your only child. I know you love me, but if there’s no recovery I refuse to live as a talking head. Will you pull the plug?’,” she recalled.
“I started shouting. At the top of my voice I said, ‘In that case, recovery. I see you swimming. I see you walking. I see you dancing. And I thank God for it, and I’m claiming it loudly.’ And he said, ‘Mom, please, control yourself. There’s some sick people in this place,’ which of course made me laugh. He did walk out of the hospital.”