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Remembering Maya Angelou

May 29, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou

May 29, 2014

As the nation mourns the loss of award-winning author, renowned poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, many in the Skidmore community are remembering the two extraordinary visits she made to the College in 1985 and 1993.

In 1985, Angelou was the first guest speaker for Skidmore’s new Liberal Studies curriculum introduced that fall. She was invited because a chapter from her 1970 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was the first reading on the LS I syllabus. In the chapter, titled “The Graduation,” Angelou describes in just a few pages the wide range of mood changes she experienced during her eighth-grade graduation in Stamps, Ark.—her initial elation, her momentary feeling that she had no control over her life, and her final affirmation of control and pride when she truly understood for the first time the words of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (which, set to music by Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, is known as the Black National Anthem.)

Addressing the 600 first-year students who had just arrived at Skidmore, Angelou read selections of her own poems and those of other African-American poets. “To look at the poetry of a people is to look at yourselves. Use it to see how human you are,” she urged. “Your responsibility is to link yourself in the chain and take responsibility wherever you are.”

“Read, read, read; go the library tonight and begin to read, and keep it up every day,” she replied to a student’s question about how best to learn. At the reception following her talk, Angelou met for a long time with students and faculty. “She was very approachable and answered all questions,” recalls Joanna Zangrando, a member of Skidmore’s American Studies Department from 1976 to 2007, a founding participant in the Women Studies Program and the director of Liberal Studies at the time.

Unable four years later to accept the College’s invitation to address the students again when they were seniors, Angelou did return in 1993 to speak at a women’s festival and receive an honorary degree. It was just seven weeks after Angelou had riveted the world with her reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” at the first inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton. More than 2,000 students, faculty and community members in Skidmore’s Williamson Sports Center stood and cheered as Angelou — joined by Zangrando, Dean of the Faculty Phyllis Roth, and others — marched in a procession toward the stage, singing “Amazing Grace.”

maya angelou 
Maya Angelou and Acting President Phyllis Roth led
the procession with all singing 'Amazing Grace'

Zangrando again introduced Angelou and read the honorary degree citation, including:

“Your life, like the lives of those dedicated poets with whom you identified so early, is testimony to the power of human creativity to shape a positive sense of self and purpose. Especially revealing to students … is the fact that much of your creative work derives from your experience of growing up black in the Jim Crow–era South.

“You honor Skidmore College by returning tonight and accepting our recognition—the honorary degree of doctor of letters—for your outstanding, inspiring, and wonderfully diverse contributions to education in the broadest sense.”

Angelou treated attendees to a mix of poetry, songs and personal anecdotes. “It was a magical evening,” says Zangrando. The next day Mary Zeiss Stange, director of the Women’s Studies Program and professor of religion, and Liz Stark ’95, a student organizer of the festival at which Angelou spoke, escorted her to the Albany airport. “As we drove down the Northway, the sun broke through the clouds, and Angelou started talking about the quality of light,” Stange recalls. “It reminded her of having once observed a young woman singing while hanging laundry out to dry. She didn’t recognize the words, but she later learned it was a slave song that had been passed down through generations. That was a memorable, magic moment.”

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