Originally Published October 26, 2007
Maya Angelou, the award-winning poet, civil rights activist and playwright, captivated an overflow crowd of more than 900 in Memorial Chapel Monday night. People began lining up at least an an hour before the event, hoping to get inside to hear the 79-year-old icon speak. For the people who packed the Chapel, Angelou did not disappoint.
Displaying her wide range of talents, Angelou sang, recited poetry, told jokes and offered words of wisdom to the audience, who responded with two standing ovations during the night.
She also recounted her difficult childhood growing up black and poor in Arkansas, which included being molested at the age of seven by her mother’s boyfriend. Traumatized by the incident and the subsequent news that an uncle had killed her attacker, Angelou lost the ability to speak for five years.
Instead, she turned to reading for salvation. She was especially attracted to the words of Shakespeare, who seemed to understand her troubles.
"At one point I was sure that Shakespeare was probably a black girl," she told the crowd.
Angelou is the recipient of dozens of honorary degrees, and she became one of only two poets to read an original work at a presidential inauguration when she was invited by President Bill Clinton to speak in 1993. Her work, “On the Pulse of Morning,” earned Angelou a Grammy award. Her best-known book is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first of six volumes of her memoirs. The 1970 autobiography was nominated for a National Book Award.
Angelou’s visit was part of the College’s President’s Forum on Diversity.