Maya Angelou Remembered

Revered poet delivered 1977 commencement address

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou relaxes before her 2009 lecture at UCR. Michael J. Elderman

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Maya Angelou was a courageous poet, author and civil-rights activist whom California Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera recalled today as a “warrior of the word” for her portrayals of the brutality of racism.

Ms. Angelou died today at the age of 86.

The revered writer visited UC Riverside twice —in 1977 to deliver the commencement address and in October 2009 for a lecture before a standing-room-only audience.

That lecture was memorable, said Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs at UCR.

“I was fortunate to witness a living legend, a true humanitarian and have been inspired every day to as she put it, ‘Try to be the rainbow in someone’s cloud,’” he recalled. “I am not sad today but rather find comfort to know that this luminous being came into this world during a full moon and journeys on during a new moon.”

Yolanda Moses, associate vice chancellor for diversity, excellence and equity, said she met the poet at a women’s conference in the 1990s where she recited the poem, “ Phenomenal Woman.”

“It had an impact on me then, and 20 years later, I still get goose bumps,” Moses said. “She was also an inspiration to many women of color in the academy as she showed how you can combine a scholarly career with an activist one as well. She has been one of my role models.”

Herrera, a professor of creative writing, said Ms. Angelou “was physical, visceral, daring, pioneering — a no-holds-barred warrior of the word, the body, the mind, the people, and the spirit of hope for all. In as many forms as you can imagine, she traversed the path and broke through the barriers.”

“I go to the bookstore, and the women, the workers, stop me, ‘Juan, do you know about Maya? She passed away. We just love her poetry.’ I was amazed and happy, they beat me to the punch,” Herrera said. “And my students, ‘Oh, Professor Herrera, have you heard about Maya?’ That’s her range. She speaks to the workers, she speaks to those in overalls, she speaks to the students in universities. That was her range.”

“In a sense she was a people’s priestess, a wise woman, a medicine woman, a speaker of the spirit and of the heart. She would give us those parables – her poetry is a parable for the heart,” Herrera said.

Born Marguerite Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Ms. Angelou was raised in segregated rural Kansas. She was a poet, historian, author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. She wrote numerous best-selling books and magazine articles, won Pultizer Prize and National Book Award nominations, won a Grammy Award, and received the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011. She became the second poet in U.S. history to write and recite original work at a presidential inauguration, “On the Pulse of Morning,” written for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

Her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” published in 1970, was one of the first by an African-American woman to make bestsellers lists and was nominated for the National Book Award.

In her 1977 commencement address Ms. Angelou challenged UCR graduates to create and maintain a sense of adventure toward life. “I encourage you to live with life,” she said. “Be courageous, adventurous. Give us a tomorrow, more than we deserve.”

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Additional Contacts

Juan Felipe Herrera

Ken Simons
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