Maya Angelou
Franklin & Marshall College,
Lancaster, Pa. (24 March 1995)

From the moment she swooped onto the stage singing, swaying and shouting -- languages tumbling from her solid six-foot frame with the force of a breaking dam -- Maya Angelou commanded her audience of 3,000 with the power of poetry.

Words flicked from her fingertips, curled around her hips, tapped out their own rhythms in the click, stomp and scuff of her feet. She stood larger than life at the podium in Franklin & Marshall College's Mayser Center in Lancaster, Pa. -- poised as if to give a sermon from a mountaintop, sing an Italian aria or dance a classical ballet. And before the hour was through Thursday night, she had done these and more.

Fluent in seven languages, she has performed as a singer and dancer, composed musical scores, written, directed and acted in plays and films, and maintained a prolific career as an autobiographer, poet, political activist, historian and editor. She spoke at President Clinton's inauguration.

Her power comes from this history as she moves audiences to find their own strength, their own language.

The students, educators, alumni and Lancaster residents privileged to her her speak often burst into spontaneous applause, tapped their feet to the snap of her fingers, and occasionally echoed her points like an Amen chorus.

"I want to spend some time talking about the issues on my heart," she began, pouring out the stories of her childhood that led to her passion for the written word.

Raped when she was 7 1/2 by her mother's boyfriend, she erroneously believed because she spoke his name it was her fault he was killed a few days afterward. She remained mute for five years, afraid the power of her voice could kill those she named. But she has since discovered, at 66, that the power of her voice urges others to live.

"Let us live so we do not regret years of inertia and ignorance," she said. "So when we die we can say all of our energy was dedicated to the noble liberation of the human mind and spirit, beginning with my own."

She said this liberation can come most easily through poetry, offering a vision of what we can be, what we should be. By reading works by authors of different races, backgrounds, cultures and classes, the essence of what is human in all of us shines clearly.

"You see that you love and lose even as I do, you yearn even as I do, so then you can say, OK, let's see if we can talk about other matters," she said. "I know you didn't expect me to preach, however the poet preaches without you knowing she is preaching."

She mixed this preaching with sorrowful gospel and blues, as well as a deep, joyous, primal laughter. But it was her passion for words, for the beauty and power of language that swept through the audience and reached out for the ears of those in the top rows and the farthest corners.

"The truth is, all art belongs to all people all of the time," she said. "So when I invite you to African-American poetry and romance, I invite you with no hesitation, no history, no culture, no sexual preference. I invite you because it is all written for all human beings."

Bemoaning the general lack of familiarity with African-American poetry , she implored students to ask to hear these voices.

"You know you should be reading this. This is your life, be there ready and eager," she said. "A good student can make a tired teacher great."

She offered revered as well as little-known verse as proof of the power to move, shape and inspire lives.

"Poetry will put starch in your backbone," she said. "There's a need for poetry in our lives, and a use for poetry in our lives. I encourage you to go and find the poetry , find two to memorize, so you can call them up in your head when you need them."

She said that everything that has come before is a gift to embrace. "You need to know that every book was written for you. You are the reason people have done the things we have done. You are the best we have. You are it," she said.

"You need to know there was someone there before you, someone hurting before you, but that they have survived with passion and compassion and humor and style."

She offered her own revelation as an example: "When I read Shakespeare at 12, I couldn't believe a white man knew what it felt like to be a black girl in the dirt roads of Arkansas. But now I know everybody writes for me."

Yet she also writes for us, teaching us how to love what is human in us all. And she does it with grace and wit and style, and certainly, most of all, with sass.

[ by Daina Savage ]

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