‘Renaissance woman’ Maya Angelou dazzles at Fall Convocation

The world renowned poet, author, playwright & educator shared on Thursday her wit and wisdom with a sold-out Alumni Gym audience.

“‘When you learn, teach. And when you get, give.’” – Maya Angelou to Fall Convocation at Elon University, citing advice learned from her grandmother


Encouraging students to make the most of their college education and to “have an attitude of gratitude,” Maya Angelou, an American icon whose poetry and literature have been honored around the world, visited Elon University on Thursday evening for its annual Fall Convocation program.

The author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” spoke Oct. 4 for more than an hour to a sold-out Alumni Gym where 2,400 students, professors, alumni and friends of the university heard her share stories of her travels and recite poetry while offering advice for living a life of meaning, or as she described it, being a “rainbow in the clouds” for others.

“Young men and women coming into this university, you’re not here just to get a piece of paper, you’re not here to meet that guy or the girl who is as cute as a button,” Angelou said. “What you’re here for is to say to those who went before you, ‘Thank you, thank you very much. I will try to make my country more than it is today.’”

Angelou recounted tales of growing up in Arkansas and Missouri. What she learned and the people she has touched, however, has more to do with values instilled early in life through education. Courage, she argued, is the most important virtue for students to build.

“Without courage you can’t represent the other virtues consistently. You have to have courage, and here in this institution of higher education, this is where you’ll continue to develop it,” she said. “You’re not born with courage. I think that you develop it.”

It is incumbent for people to spread their education to those around them, she said.

“Not only are you in a place where you will learn, but you are in a place where you will become able to teach. What a blessing,” Angelou said. She soon cited advice her grandmother once put forward. “‘When you learn, teach. And when you get, give.’”

Angelou praised Elon for the role it has played over the years in helping people continue their learning. She also sprinkled humor into her observations about the university.

“Many years ago it was the school down the street, it was the place around the corner. There were other places when people finished high school they wanted to go to,” Angelou said. “But actually, Elon was a rainbow in the cloud. Many people came here who represented the first time anyone in their family had ever gone to an institution of higher education. Elon! And I’m amazed that I live in this state, and it’s the first time I’ve ever been invited! Mmm-mm!”

Associate Professor Jean Rattigan-Rohr in the School of Education opened the program by welcoming guests to campus and lauding Angelou for her contributions to humanity.

“Few of us in life will ever get to a place where it’s said that little introduction is needed because so many people around the world are familiar with our life’s work and our talents,” Rohr said. “We are honored as she shares stories of people she has met, her life, and her award-winning poetry. We think we know a great deal about her because of the breath of her work, but she still has more stories to share. Her book is not complete.”

Prior to the event, the Black Cultural Society of Elon University recognized Angelou with an award for her “outstanding humanitarian contributions to the promotion and celebration of peoples and cultures” around the planet. Students presenting the award were Arnetia Fogg, Chevonne Sewer and Anyssa McMillan.

Born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Angelou was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Ark. As a teenager, she won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation.

In 1954 and 1955, Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom.

In 1960, Angelou moved to Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.

During her years abroad, Angelou mastered French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity.

Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Martin Luther King, Jr. soon asked Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated.

With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published in 1970 to international acclaim and enormous popular success.

A trailblazer in film and television, Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film “Georgia, Georgia.” Her script, the first by an African-American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

She continues to appear on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” (1977) and John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice” (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, “Down in the Delta.” In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary “The Black Candle,” directed by M.K. Asante.

Angelou has received more than 30 honorary degrees and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.