Words of Wisdom
Noted poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou graced the
stage at Appalachian State University on Tuesday for a stirring performance that was part poetry
reading, part stand-up act and part self-help lecture.
Thousands filled the Holmes Convocation Center to hear the illustrious writer speak words of encouragement and challenge for the days ahead.
“We are more alike than we are unalike,” Angelou said.
After a group singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and rousing song and dance performances by ASU music groups, Angelou broke the ice with a joke about her travel arrangements.
Angelou said she stopped flying and began traveling by bus because people were constantly stopping her in airports, poking and prodding and asking her to hold babies for photos. “I go into airports, and I look just like Maya Angelou,” she said.
She also tailored some of her remarks to the crowd, which was heavy with young Appalachian State University students.
“We need you desperately,” she said. “Not enough adults tell you that we need you. You’re the best we have. We have nobody better than you.”
But many of her statements were applicable to all ages in the audience.
She spoke about the value of developing courage, noting that it isn’t something achieved instantly.
“Without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently,” Angelou said.
She suggested that those in attendance not remain in the company of anyone who uses racial pejoratives, calling the terms “poison” that sap the humanity from a person.
Angelou described an experience she had when she became the first black director and producer for 20th Century Fox. She was settling in to her new office when a group of “suits” arrived.
One used a disparaging term for a minority that wasn’t present in the office. Angelou told him she would not allow that term to be used in her office. Taken aback, the men pointed out that they had provided this office.
So, Angelou left instead.
She walked past the other offices, down the stairs and out the door before she realized she forgot her purse. Angelou said she “hid in the bushes,” because she couldn’t bear to go back in.
“Before you get up and walk out, be sure you have the keys to your car,” she said to audience laughter.
At 84, Angelou has had plenty of those life experiences to share. Raised in St. Louis, Mo., and Stamps, Ark., Angelou experienced racial discrimination and hardship chronicled later in several memoirs, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
As a young girl, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, and after his release from jail, the man was murdered.
“I thought my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking,” Angelou told the Boone audience.
Despite her years as a mute, she later learned five languages fluently during her extensive travels, which also put her in the company of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Also an actress, dancer and screenwriter, Angelou was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her 1972 film, “Georgia, Georgia,” and also won three Grammy awards.
Perhaps most well known for her poetry, she described discovering the genre and memorizing everything she could find.
A fan of Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare, Angelou urged the audience to free themselves from ignorance and liberate themselves from idiocy through the written word.
“I encourage you men and women, to the best of your ability, study, go to the library and pull out the poetry,” Angelou said.
She read several of her own poems, including “Still I Rise” and “A Brave and Startling Truth,” and from songs and other works.
Among her final words of advice were these: “See what you have, my dears, see who you are and where you are needed.”