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1977 Commencement Address of Maya Angelou

1977 Commencement Address of Maya Angelou

Thank you very much. I’m delighted to be invited and certainly pleased by the reception. I thank the Chancellor, the officials, senior members and junior members of the institution, parents and friends.

In particular, I thank the graduating class. It seems to me that a commencement address always comes after the fact, after the long hours, after the tedious work, after trying to come to grips with somebody else’s ideas, after trying to stimulate one’s own brain so that it may come up with some ideas of its own. After all that, and even after the institution of higher education says to you, “You have done well, and to prove it I’m going to give you a diploma. After all that, then along comes a stranger who says, “I’m going to give you a commencement address.” It seems a contradiction, or else a little presumptuous. However, (pauses for laughter) there is a challenge that faces you that is incredible. And the challenge is not new. However it has not abated. The challenge is how to create a sense of adventure toward life and how to maintain that sense of adventure. There is an African statement that says, “The trouble for the thief is not how to steal the bugle, but where to blow it.” And it would seem that the trouble for you is not just how to get out of this institution, but once out, what does one do? Does one simply sit with that diploma and say, “I have found the one way, the true way for myself and I call all the others false.” Or do you indeed join life, that is the challenge.

There’s a poem that says. “She does not know her beauty. She thinks her brown body has no glory. If she could dance naked under palm trees and see her image in the river, she would know.” But there are no palm trees on the street and dishwater gives back no images. Now, the way one maintains, I believe, a sense of adventure, a love of life, and since life loves the liver of it, or certainly seems to favor the adventurous spirit, it is a wonderful thing to maintain that idea, that concept. The one way is to keep alive heroes and sheroes. I believe that people live in direct relationship with the heroes and sheroes they honor. And I will talk to you about sheroes and heroes. I don’t believe that he or she must always be embodied in the physical body. I believe that an idea can be a shero or hero. Certainly the idea of religion can be.

Black Americans were first brought to this country in 1619. That was one year before the Mayflower docked. That’s an aside (laughter.) Today, we are upwards of thirty million and that’s a conservative estimate. How do people continue to exist, and walk as if they have oil wells in their back yards, except that there is a hero/shero that stays alive. Some years ago when I was with “Porgy and Bess,” we went to Morocco. The company had traveled through many countries. And when we arrived in Morocco, we were told that the sets had been sent on to Spain, and we were obliged to give a concert. Well opera singers, as some of you know because some of your are, are a people always prepared to sing. I believe they have their portfolios taped behind their watches or something, they are always ready. So when the conductor said to the singers, “We should do a concert,” they really got into fine voice. I was the premiere danseuse and I simply couldn’t. I was not trained in that discipline. I went to the conductor and I said, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to sing. I don’t have any arias. He turned to me, he was Russian, and said, “Bah. Don’t you know a spiritual?”

I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, about the size of this side of the seating (she gestures to one side of the audience.) We went to church on Sunday. I don’t mean we went to church and left. We went to church on Sunday, that was all day, and then Monday night missionary meeting, Tuesday night deacon meeting, Wednesday night prayer meeting, and so on. And at all these meetings we sang. Now I had never really thought about the black American spiritual. I never understood what meaning, what value it had, until that night in Morocco. The people in the company went out and delivered themselves of these beautiful arias, from Rossini and Resphigi and Handel and Purcell, just lovely things, Mozart. And they were well received. But then I went out onto the stage and there was a pit with a 120-piece orchestra. But how could they help me with their violins, celli and things. So I said, “It’s alright.” And I sang a song that my grandmother sang every Sunday of my life until I was 13 and left that small town in Arkansas. When I finished, 4,000 people stood up and stomped and made noise and shouted. (here she imitates some of the language.) And I thought, uh huh. What was that? It wasn’t for my singing. I can sing fairly well. But it wasn’t that. I walked away from the auditorium and I walked alone in Morocco trying to come to grips with what had happened. The great singers had sung “La Donna’ e Mobile,” (she sings it) and sung it beautifully. They had done it to perfection, lyrically. And I sang, what I had thought to be a good song, but not very important music. And there were 4,000 people screaming my name. And then I realized that my people could not give me the great names that bring shivers in the marketplaces. They couldn’t give me the land that people barter their souls for sometimes, nor money, nor power. But what they gave me was a hero/shero that allowed me to walk as tall, and be free enough to accept other ideas, ideas other than those that generate within my own community. And it is that for which I am very grateful. It is that I want to encourage in the breasts and minds of the graduating class.

There is among black Americans, for centuries, we were known to laugh when we weren’t tickled, and scratch when we didn’t itch. And those gestures have come down to us as “Uncle Tomming.” I suggest to you that those people, who were successful in that particular strategy, are heroes and sheroes, and we live in direct relation to the heroes and sheroes that we have. I wrote a poem for a woman who is a maid in New York City. She rides the bus. When the bus stops too fast, she goes “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” When it picks someone up, she goes, “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” When it misses them, she goes, “Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” And I thought, “Now what is that?” Really? If you don’t know black features you may think she is smiling. She’s not smiling at all. She’s exercising that old survival apparatus, that’s all. So I wrote a poem for her, because she is a shero of mine.

When I think about myself, I almost laugh myself to death.

My life has been one great big joke, a dance what’s walked, a song what’s spoke.
I laugh so hard I nearly choke, when I think about myself.
Sixty years in these folks’ world, the child I works for calls me “girl.”
And I say “yes, ma’am” for workin’s sake. I’m too proud to bend and too poor to break.
So hmph, humph, ha, ha, humph, I laugh until my stomach ache, when I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side. I laugh so hard I nearly died.
The tales they tell sound just like lyin’. They grow the fruit, but eat the rind.
I laugh so hard, I start to cryin’ when I think about myself.

Ladies and gentlemen, a good commencement address should be brief. It might be funny. In this case I shall not be funny. I will encourage you along the lines of Terence, a playwright in 150 B.C., who said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” It is interesting that his name is Terentius Afer, or Terence of Africa. He was a slave sold to a Roman Senator, freed by that Senator, and he became the most popular playwright in Rome. And he said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

I encourage you to live with life. Be courageous, adventurous. Give us a tomorrow, more than we deserve. I thank you very much, and I encourage you to commence.

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