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Ten minutes with Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was the featured speaker at Lehigh's 137th commencement ceremony in May. Photo by Theo Anderson.

The author of 12 best-selling books, Maya Angelou is hailed as one of the great voices of literature. An acclaimed poet, actress, producer, director, and educator, she has often been described as a true Renaissance woman for the 21st century.

As this year's commencement speaker, she inspired her audience of 1,650 graduates and their families by combining poetry, storytelling, and song in a stirring speech that urged them to face the challenges ahead and aspire to greatness.

"I know you are inheriting a world of blood thirst and anger and wild rage, but I also know that there is hope and you are it. I know that there is love, and you are it. I know that this nation, with its great institutions and its history, belongs to the citizens who inhabit it. And I know that the future, with its sadness and joy, its despair and ecstasy, belongs to the young hope, which is who you are."

Prior to delivering her address, Angelou talked with our own Linda Harbrecht.

So much we read and hear about in the news is bleak, yet you frequently write with an optimistic view of the capacity to endure adversity and prevail. What gives you hope?

Today gives me hope. That's what I'm going to be speaking about in 10 minutes. Today gives me hope. Today, because all these young people -- he or she could be hope. If I wasn't a believer in the glass being half full, I would indulge myself with the alcohol of my choice and drift away. But I know that hope springs eternal in the human breast.

When you read the poem you had written for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in the early '90s, it was a very different world. Could you contrast your sense of the world then and now?

Well, there seemed to be more evidence of hope at that time. This Iraqi situation, the Middle East situation, is sapping our young men and women of their dreams for the future, and some of our older people are quite disenchanted. So, at the inauguration of President Clinton, there was a palpable sense of hope at the time.

We read that you're often asked to give advice to young people and your consistent response is "to read."

Yes, by all means, read. To watch a great tale told very, very well on television limits the brain, period. Because the pictures are made for the person. If he or she reads about an afternoon, when the sun was dawning in the sky and the leaves were trembling in the trees, he has to imagine it. She has to make that picture in her own mind. If it's made for her, it's a cheap out, it's the line of least resistance. Also, reading gives the reader a chance to mull over great ideas, or even over minor ideas, and go back and think about them. That's hope.

You were quoted in a 1995 interview as saying that artists must fight the elimination of federal funding for the arts, or they will be defanged.

Yes, the nation is minimized, it's damaged without art. Without art we risk becoming brutish, and even brutes. Music, and sculpture and dance, film, literature -- all the arts tenderize, they feed the soul, and tenderize the spirit.

You have a long history of political involvement. How involved are you today?

I raise money for politicians I believe in.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Thursday, October 13, 2005

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