Last month, I was delighted to learn that the University may invite Maya Angelou to deliver this year's Commencement address. I cannot think of a better choice to enlighten the graduating class. I write from experience; I have seen Maya Angelou speak twice, including my own undergraduate commencement in 1996. Both times, Angelou's messages were poignant and artfully delivered. Her speeches were woven with poetry and song, and her presence was enthralling. More significant was the lesson I learned by contrasting between the two speeches -- one at my alma mater, the predominantly white University of Delaware, and the other at Hampton University, a historically black institution. Angelou gave a wonderful speech at my graduation. She began by singing, "When it looked like the sun would not shine anymore, you became my rainbow in the cloud." She built upon the metaphor, telling us that we had "incredible responsibility" to become "rainbows" for the world. She dedicated a poem entitled "When We Come To It" to my graduating class. In a most inspiring manner, Angelou chanted that "it" was the realization that we are the true "wonders of the world" -- and that we have the power to change it. The audience cheered, and I thought it was the most wonderful speech I had ever seen. That was until I saw Angelou's remarks at Hampton University later that summer. Although I viewed this event on tape rather than in person, it was even more amazing. Angelou had this predominantly African-American crowd absolutely roaring. She engaged the audience throughout, sharing her laughter and pain. Angelou talked about her experiences being raped as a child and not speaking for years during her early teens -- incredible given her stellar oratorical skills. She told of the struggles of black people in America, relaying the history of slavery and the resilience of those who have survived. Similar to the rainbow metaphor used earlier, Angelou sang, "You are my balm... to cleanse the sin-sick soul." Besides sharing her pain, Angelou rejoiced with the crowd, reading her "self love" poetry. Her words illustrated the pride she felt as a black woman, not only the struggles. My first reaction was to wonder why didn't Angelou deliver these remarks at my commencement? Her address at Delaware was excellent, but it was not nearly as captivating as the message she delivered at Hampton. Both times, Angelou spoke of our responsibility to support our fellow human beings, but her remarks at Hampton were more personal, and she infected the audience with camaraderie. Could Angelou not have connected with my graduating class in the same way? I realize now that she probably couldn't have. Her gleeful nuances about her grandmother braiding her hair, about Sugar Hill in Harlem and about having "the luck to be black on a Saturday night" are all part of a common history and understanding -- one that traces back generations and that most people who are not black cannot fully appreciate. While not all African Americans know these experiences, enough did at Hampton to let Angelou establish a sense of family through her words. Unfortunately, rather than trying to understand this bond, many people feel threatened by the assertion of ethnic selfhood. Whenever African Americans on campus come together in joy or in pain, they are accused of self-segregation. But pride in and awareness of one's group identity are vital, and African Americans must assert this identity in order to maintain it. Whites usually do not have to think about these issues, but African Americans get so many negative messages that they cannot afford to ignore them. Even when their individual experiences and views differ, the common identity that develops among many African Americans is a powerful and positive force. And while we can all share our stories with others, people who have not grown up with these stories simply cannot understand them as well. None of us can be "balms" or "rainbows" all the time. Maya Angelou knew this when she gave her speeches at Delaware and Hampton, and I have come to learn it, too. Overall, Maya Angelou would make an outstanding choice for Penn's Commencement speaker. Her message transcends divisions among people, yet still celebrates her identity. She is a talented poet and an insightful humanist. And Maya Angelou is, above all, a strong and proud black woman.Comments powered by Disqus
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