A Tribute to Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou and rapt Smith students in the Alumnae House, 1975.

Editor’s note: In 1975, legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary degree from Smith. Five years later, she was asked to speak to Smith’s graduating class of 1980. Sprinkling her address with verses from hers and others’ poetry, Angelou inspired the graduates to be courageous, to love and seek love, and to “make this country more than it is today.” In tribute to Angelou, who died yesterday, we reprint the renowned poet’s commencement address here. 

 

Address to the Class of 1980

By Maya Angelou

I am honored that you have asked me to participate with you in such an important rite of passage—your most important rite of passage—and certainly your first as an adult. I am honored because I know that this particular ceremony will furnish you with friends and memories that you will carry through the rest of your lives. You will be influenced later on, you will go on to get another degree and another, and many of you will be honored by kings and presidents—and queens I pray. But this one will remain a precious ceremony and I thank you for inviting me to share it with you.

 

She does not know

Her beauty,

She thinks her brown body

Has no glory.

 

If she could dance

Naked,

Under palm trees,

And see her image in the river

She would know.

 

But there are no palm trees

On the street,

And dishwater gives back no images.[1]

 

A perfect piece of poetry written in the 1930s by a black American male poet which has to do with the identity and the courage to identify one’s self for one’s self and later for one’s community. I’m going to speak to you about love and the courage to love, indeed, about courage itself. It is the most important of all the virtues because without courage you cannot be sure that you can practice any other virtue with consistency. So it is important to develop courage, the courage to love in an era, in a time, when love is almost synonymous with distrust, abuse, misuse and, in fact, negligence. In order to love, I mean erotic love, agape love, familial love, platonic love, consistently, you must care first about yourselves because in order to say one loves someone else and act upon that love, one must really love one’s self. There’s an African statement, “Be careful, when a naked person offers you a piece of cloth.” In the 19th century there was a black woman poet, Miss Georgia Johnson, who wrote about love. Now mind you when many write about blacks and love, they would have us believe that white people make love and black people just have sex. Miss Georgia Johnson in the 19th century wrote:

 

I want to die while you love me.

While yet your hold me fair,

While laughter lies upon my lips

And lights are in my hair.

 

I want to die while you love me

And bear to that still bed

Your kisses—turbulent, unspent,

To warm me when I’m dead.

 

I want to die while you love me

Oh, who would care to live,

’Til love has nothing more to ask

And nothing more to give.[2]

 

Miss Anne Spencer, 19th-century black lady poet, with a lot of courage, wrote:

 

LETTER TO MY SISTER

 

It is dangerous for a woman to defy the gods;

To taunt them with the tongue’s thin tip,

Or strut in the weakness of mere humanity,

Or draw a line daring them to cross;

The gods own the searing lightening,

The drowning waters, tormenting fears

And the anger of red sins.

 

Oh, but worse still if you mince timidly—

Dodge this way or that, or kneel or pray,

Be kind, or sweat agony drops

Or lay your quick body over your feeble young;

If you have beauty or none, if celibate

Or vowed—the gods are Juggernaut,

Passing over… over…

 

This you may do:

Lock your heart, then, quietly,

And lest they peer within,

Light no lamp when dark comes down

Raise no shade for sun;

Breathless must your breath come through

If you’d die and dare deny

The gods their god-like fun.[3]

 

The ability to develop courage is an ability that is in your hands—it is in your mind—you can do anything you like. The only freedom you will probably ever know, you have begun to know now, here, the freedom to think, to imagine, to reform, to change—to start by changing yourselves and those areas around you with which you do not agree. You may do that and you must do that; it is an unfortunate, and maybe a fortunate affair, that we are giving you, people of my generation, are giving you a charge which is a desperate one. You are obliged to try to make this country more than it is today which is these yet-to-be-United States. It is a serious matter, a very serious matter. And you women have a wonderful chance now, as women and as people who will move into what is lightly and probably seriously called the White Women’s Movement, liberation movement. You have a chance to eradicate racism now. You have that chance because it is new, it is early, you can bend the branches now if you have the courage. Mind you, you may say you have the will, and that’s marvelous, but to have the courage to do so and to develop the courage as one develops any other muscle; you have that chance and I pray you will continue and show us what this incredible graduating class of 1980 is about.

 

There is a kind of love that is shown by older black women and courage for which I’ve written a poem. Black people in this country were obliged for centuries to laugh when they weren’t tickled and scratch when they didn’t itch. And those gestures have come down to us as Uncle Tomming and Aunt Jemimaing. I suggest to you that people live in direct relationship to the heroes and sheroes they have, in all ways and always and those people who laughed and scratched and carried on were very successful or I would not have the privilege to have been asked to speak to you here today. This woman [in my poem] who is a maid in New York City sits on a bus if the bus stops too fast, she laughs, if it stops too slowly, she laughs, if it misses somebody, she laughs, if it picks someone up, she laughs. But after watching her I realized the woman wasn’t really laughing—if you don’t know black features you may think she’s laughing—she was just extending her lips and making a sound. She was using that old survival apparatus, and I want you to see that.

 

When I think about myself,

I almost laugh myself to death.…

My folks can make me split my side,

I laughed so hard I nearly died.…

 

Sixty years in these folks’ world

The child I works for calls me girl

I say “Yes ma’am” for working’s sake.

Too proud to bend

Too poor to break,

I laugh until my stomach ache,

When I think about myself.[4]

 

Now that’s a great deal of love to care enough about a people to debase one’s self so that a whole people can survive. That’s a great deal of love. However, the last, greatest kind of love is to love yourself so much that you want to see the species continue.

 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

 

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips,

The stride of my step,

The curl of my lips.

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.

 

Men themselves have wondered

what they see in me.

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

When I try to show them

They say they still can’t see.

I say,

It’s the fire in my eyes,

And the flash of my teeth,

The swing of my waist,

And the joy of my feet.

 

Now you understand

Just why my head’s not bowed.

I don’t shout or jump about

Or have to talk real loud

 

When you see my passing

It ought to make you proud.

I say,

It’s in the click of my heels,

The swing of my waist

The ride of my breasts

The palm of my hand

‘Cause I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s all of you—and me.[5]

 

Ladies, there is an African statement which is, “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the chief’s bugle, but where to blow it.” The issue for you obviously has been how to stay at Smith for these years and discharge yourselves wonderfully so that your parents and friends and you yourselves and your teachers and all will be pleased. Ladies, it was a wonderful charge and you have obviously done marvelously. I ask you now, When will you commence? What will you do? It is the question that you must ask yourselves. What will you do about your lives? What will you really, really, really do? Thank you.

 

 



[1] Waring Cuney, “No Images,” American Negro Poetry, Arna Bontemps, ed, Hill and Wang, N.Y. 1963, p. 98

[2] Georgia Johnson, “I Want to Die While You Still Love Me,” An Autumn Love Cycle, Books for Libraries Press, 1971, p.42

[3] Anne Spencer, “Letter to my Sister,” Cavalcade, Negro American Writing 1760 to the Present, eds. Arthur Davis and Saunders Redding, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1971, p.270

[4] Maya Angelou, “When I Think About Myself,” (slightly abridged by the speaker) Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, 1971, Random House, New York, p.25

[5] Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman,” The Third Woman, ed. Dexter Fisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980. (slightly abridged by the speaker)