Maya Angelou At USC: "Listen to the Poetry”
Known as a novelist, civil rights activist, educator, and inspirational speaker, Angelou was a dynamic meld of her talents, bringing USC students to raucous applause time and time again.
“Imagine human beings and how we talk – we say such wonderful things,” Angelou said when she began, adding that she felt weak at both the beauty and potential ugliness of words.
Her love of words and its expressiveness in poetry would be a carrying theme of the night.
The event, “An Evening with Maya Angelou,” was put on by the university’s Program Board. Angelou spoke to a packed auditorium, which seats about 1,200 people. Students lined up outside as early as four hours before the event.
Recalling the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Angelou described a story in which rain poured down so unrelentingly that people feared it wouldn’t stop. God then placed a rainbow in the sky to put his people at ease.
Just as the rainbow represented light and possibility of hope for people in dire times, higher education represents endless opportunities for its students, according to Angelou.
Because educated students have numerous possibilities open to them, Angelou encouraged them to find strength and answers in time of need in poetry, an art that has been ignored.
“Poetry can be credited with saving at least one group of people, maybe more,” Angelou said. “Poetry says ‘You’re not only okay, you’re just right.’”
Angelou recited poems like “The Negro Love Song,” “We Wear the Mask,” and “Letter to my Sister,” in addition to her own “The Health Food Diner” and “A Brave and Startling Truth,” penned following a request by the United Nations.
She often leaned back in her chair to recite, but her foot tapped rapidly along to the beat of the words, drawing a mixture of laughter, delight, and various competing emotions from the audience.
Poems that speak to real-life experiences and challenging situations, regardless of race or ethnicity, can be powerful examples to remind people that they are not alone.
“You need to know, someone cried before you. Someone was lonely before you, misunderstood before you,” Angelou said. She advised students to visit a library in search for good poetry.
“We have ill-used librarians. They develop with the dignity and diligence of a heart surgeon,” Angelou said with a laugh.
“Upon the moment you feel the most unstable, you can find courage,” Angelou said. “You have to have the courage to say ‘I beg your pardon?’”
To further her point, she repeated a quote by Terence, a Roman Republic playwright, said in 154 B.C.: “I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me.”
Most famous for her autobiographical work, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou is a successful writer with several books and poetry collections published over the years.
Prior to her literary success, she befriended numerous civil rights activists, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. She later served as Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Angelou has also directed a feature film, received three Grammy’s, and served on two presidential committees. She first spoke at USC 30 years ago and was given an honorary doctorate. She returned, now 83 years old, to offer a message to its students.
She said poetry encouraged herself and others to be more than they used to be and more than what they thought they could be. She offered students a chance to attain new perspective and become more mindful of what they have.
However, should times remain tough, it appears as if there is still a beacon of light for people should they look for one.
“I am willing to be a rainbow in someone else’s sky,” Angelou said.
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