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Angelou to speak at commencement

Maya Angelou will speak at Lehigh's 137th commencement ceremony in May. Photo by Steven Dunwell.

Maya Angelou, hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature and author of 12 best-selling books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, will address the 1,343 graduates of Lehigh University’s Class of 2005.

Lehigh's 137th commencement ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. Monday, May 23, in Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium.

“We are in awe with all that Dr. Angelou has accomplished with such grace and passion,” says Marinee Cabrera, Lehigh senior class president. “Dr. Angelou is multi-talented—she is a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. We were looking for someone like Dr. Angelou, who excels in multiple arenas and whose message of strength could be passed on to the graduating class. We have so much respect for her and are just thrilled that she will be Lehigh’s commencement speaker.”

Cabrera and her fellow class officers Kelli Crabtree, vice president; Kimberly Aquila, treasurer; Matt Bridgeman, secretary; and Erika Murdock, class gift chair, polled the senior class for speaker suggestions. The class officers researched every one of the 100-plus submissions, ranging from comedians to actors and civil rights activists. Then, after much research and many discussions with classmates, the class officers brought a list of possible candidates to the selection committee.

The committee, consisting of the senior class officers and a group of eight faculty and staff, narrowed the list down, ultimately selecting Dr. Angelou.

“I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as a freshman and recently read her poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’—both had a strong impact on me and gave me a new perspective,” Cabrera says. “I am confident that her thoughts and messages will be appreciated, and that through Dr. Angelou’s speech, our classmates will be inspired to do even greater things as they leave Lehigh.”

Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh, notes that Lehigh has had some amazing speakers in the past and says Angelou’s selection continues that tradition.

“We are thrilled with the selection of Dr. Angelou as speaker,” Farrington says. “Building on the engaging insight offered in past commencement speeches, such as last year’s by Kurt Vonnegut, Dr. Angelou’s message of understanding, perseverance, optimism and strength is sure to get the Class of 2005 thinking as they head out into their future.”

For more information on this year's commencement weekend, click here.

Angelou is known as a mesmerizing vision of grace, swaying and stirring when she moves, captivating her audiences lyrically with vigor, fire and perception. She is also revered for her unique ability to shatter the opaque prisms of race and class between reader and subject throughout her books of poetry and her autobiographies.

Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, won a National Book Club Award and was the first book by an African-American writer to hold the distinction of being the longest running on the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction Bestseller list. She is also a Pulitzer Prize nominee for her poetry (Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie, 1971).

In addition, in January 1993, she became only the second poet in U.S. history to have the honor of writing and reciting original work at a presidential inauguration when she read at Bill Clinton’s ceremony.

Beyond her written works, Angelou has a broad scope of experience directing, producing and appearing on film, television and theater. She is an Emmy-award nominated actress for her work in the film Roots (she played Nyo Boto, known as “Grandmother,” and was nominated as Best Supporting Actress) and was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance on stage in Look Away. In addition, Angelou was honored with a Grammy Award in 1994 for Best Spoken Word Album.

Angelou is also known for her work as a civil rights activist. Appointed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1959 as the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Angelou has remained at the forefront of activism.

Highlights of Maya Angelou’s written works include:

Autobiographies (Random House & Bantam Books)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1970
Gather Together in My Name, 1974
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, 1976
The Heart of a Woman, 1981
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, 1986
A Song Flung Up To Heaven, 2002
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes, 2004

Poetry

Just Give Me A Cool Drink Of Water 'Fore I Diiie, 1971
Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, 1975
And Still I Rise, 1978
Shaker, Why Don't You Sing, 1983
Now Sheba Sings The Song, 1987
I Shall Not Be Moved, 1990
On The Pulse Of Morning, (Written at the request of William Jefferson Clinton for his Inauguration as the 42nd President of The United States), January 20, 1993
The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, 1994
Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems for Women, 1995
A Brave And Startling Truth, 1995
From a Black Woman to a Black Man, 1995
Extravagant Spirits, 1997

--Dina M. Silver

Posted on Friday, March 18, 2005

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