'Phenomenal woman' speaks out

Maya Angelou gave the keynote address for Women's Week last night in Irvine Auditorium

· February 18, 2009, 5:00 am

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Author, poet, and activist Maya Angelou gives the keynote address for Penn Women's Week last night at Irvine Auditorium. She began her talk by singing "When the saints go marching in."


Maya Angelou, prominent author, poet and activist, said she doesn't "trust people who do not laugh."

To Angelou's expressed satisfaction, Irvine Auditorium was filled with laughter last night when she delivered the Women's Week keynote address to a sold-out crowd.

Author and Creative Writing professor Lorene Cary introduced Angelou, calling her ability to "communicate with a wide group of people on important topics" a "gift."

As Cary listed Angelou's numerous accomplishments, a dramatic cough filled the auditorium. The crowd broke into laughter as they realized the cough came from Angelou behind the curtain, who thought the introduction had gone on long enough. Cary gave over the stage.

Wearing a long black dress and pearl earrings, Angelou was greeted by a standing ovation. As the crowd calmed down, she took her seat center stage and in her distinctive deep voice, began to sing, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

The song's theme carried through the entire address. Angelou applied the title of "saint" to poets, teachers and "Mama," her grandmother.

"I want to be known as a saint," she said.

Angelou also said she considers herself a teacher. She credited "Mama" with the idea, who Angelou said told her when she was a child, "You are going to be a teacher all over the world."

Eighty-year-old Angelou described the ways she is uniquely qualified to teach us about life. At her age, she said, "You are doing your best to stay alive," a comment which caused the audience to applaud and laugh.

Angelou was raped at age seven and was consequently "mute" until age 12. At 16, she said, "I was six feet tall, I was black - even then - I was pregnant and unmarried."

Back then, Angelou said, she "could not have imagined" that 50 years later, she would be invited to write and deliver a poem for the United Nations.

In keeping with the theme of Women's Week, Angelou shared her thoughts on what being a woman means to her. She said she was excited, "to be here celebrating being a woman, like I had anything to do with it."

She discussed the difference between being a woman and being an "old female."

"Women, I do not want to see you narrow yourselves down," she said.

Earlier in the day, she attended a meet-and-greet with Women's Week organizers, who she said were too nervous to utilize her wisdom. "I was there 10 minutes before they cracked their faces," she said.

Throughout the evening, Angelou implored students to ask questions.

Students heeded her request, asking about varied and personal topics in the question-and-answer session following the event.

College and Wharton Sophomore Sourav Bose said he liked that Angelou was given freedom to choose the direction of the talk.

"Most speakers give very tactical talks," College senior Bing Chen noted, but Angelou's was "spiritual."

Not giving herself the title of "saint" just yet, Angelou said she considers herself, above all, a "human being."

She emphasized her humanity further, repeating, "I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me," and encouraging the audience to e-mail her - although she might not reply for two or three months.

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