Maya Angelou was an acclaimed American poet, storyteller, and activist well known for her deep writing that stirred your soul. Using the power of her pen and her commitment to the cause, she worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement and later taught at the Wake Forest University, USA.
Born in 1928, she was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend which she later told her brother and that soon reached the ears of the extended family. A few days later, the rapist was murdered. That entire experience shook her and she went mute. In her own words, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.“
After five years, eventually she got her voice back and was able to share her thoughts with us both literally and figuratively. She is well known for her many works, the most famous of which is her first autobiography ‘I know why a Caged Bird Sings‘ that gave her much international fame and acclaim.
Today, we urge you to read the commencement address that she gave at the Wellesley College for Women, Wellesley, Massachusetts in 1982, in which she quotes two of her poems and urges the students to adopt the virtue of courage, confront and live the life ahead.
Courage! Isn’t that something we all need?
Courage to tell our parents that we want to study a subject of our choice, courage to step out and carve a niche in a field of our choice, courage to live life on our own terms, courage to tell your children that you have a mind of your own and so on. The list is endless and unique to each of us.
Life is not easy for anyone, but if she could do it back then with worse circumstances, why can’t we do it today in the 21st century?
Excerpts from Commencement Address by Maya Angelou, Class of 1982, Wellesley College:
Now the joy begins. Now the work begins. The years of preparation, of tedious study and exciting learning at least begin to make sense. The jumble of words and the tangle of small and great thoughts begin to take order, and this morning you can see a small portion, an infinitesimal portion, of the map of your future…
…you have still had to develop an outstanding courage to invent this moment, for you have invented it. Of all your attributes—your youth, your beauty, your wit, your kindnesses, your money—courage is indeed your greatest achievement. It is the greatest of all your virtues, for without courage you cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.
It is upon you to increase your virtue, the virtue of courage—it is upon you. You will be challenged mightily, and you will fall many times.
It is upon you to increase your virtue, the virtue of courage—it is upon you. You will be challenged mightily, and you will fall many times. But it is important to remember that it may be necessary to encounter defeat, I don’t know. But I do know that a diamond, one of the most precious elements in this planet, certainly one in many ways the hardest, is the result of extreme pressure, and time. Under less pressure, it’s crystal. Less pressure than that, its coal, less than that, its fossilized leaves are just plain dirt.
You must encounter, confront life. Life loves the liver of it, ladies. It is for you to increase your virtues. There is that in the human spirit which will not be gunned down even by death. There is no person here who is over one year old who hasn’t slept with fear, or pain or loss or grief, or terror, and yet we have all arisen, have made whatever absolutions we were able to, or chose to, dressed, and said to other human beings, “Good morning. How are you? Fine, thanks.”
Therein lies our chance toward nobleness—not nobility—but nobleness, the best of a human being is in that ability to overcome.
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The entire address can be read at – Commencement Address, Class of 1982, Wellesley College.
Maya Angelou wrote about fighting adversity and surviving. All her works remind us that we will encounter many defeats in our lives, but we should never let our spirit be defeated.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*