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Longtime Convocation speaker Maya Angelou passes away at 86

Maya Angelou speaks at Duke Chapel in 2013.
Maya Angelou speaks at Duke Chapel in 2013.

Author and poet Maya Angelou died Wednesday the age of 86.

Angelou passed away at her home in Winston-Salem Wednesday morning. Angelou spoke to Duke's freshman class during orientation week for the past 24 years. First invited to speak in 1989, she has used her address to the freshman classes to discuss the value of education, racial issues and the importance of humility, among other topics.

Hearing tributes around the world… it’s a reminder to us of what a special opportunity Duke and Duke Students have had to spend special time with Maya Angelou at the beginning of their college careers,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “It’s unfortunate that the Class of 2018 and beyond will not be able to start off their time at Duke with those words."

Angelou was first invited to Duke nearly 25 years ago as part of a program called “A Vision for Duke.” The orientation program sought to expand students’ awareness of multicultural issues and respect for all people, according to The Chronicle's reporting in August 1989. Students spent time in discussion groups immediately following the August 27, 1989 speech, foreshadowing the decades of discussion and awareness that Angelou subsequently brought to convocation ceremonies time after time.

“The more she started coming a few times, she made it clear that she loved Duke, that she loved being here,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta, who noted that he watched Angelou speak in each of the 13 past years he has been at Duke.

This year would have been the 25th anniversary of Angelou’s speech at Duke, which Moneta said would have been celebrated especially at this year’s convocation for the Class of 2018.

“She has been a fixture and seemingly a permanent presence at convocation and orientation,” Schoenfeld said.

Her very first address in Duke Chapel told incoming students to think of the future generations that will benefit from their hard work and awareness. In particular, she reminded the audience of their diverse history of ancestors who escaped harder situations to pave the way for their descendants’ lives.

“They have paid for each one of you. They have dared to survive so that you could be here today,” she said at the time. “The responsibility on you is to earn your freedom from ignorance so that you can go out and earn the freedom of someone who is to come.”

Echoing the sentiment of appreciating diversity that she discussed on campus back in 1989, Angelou used her last Duke convocation, the Class of 2017's, to reiterate the importance that all Duke students overcome ignorance by educating themselves about other cultures.

Quoting the Roman playwright Terrence, she said to the 2013 crowd, "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”

Student commencement speaker Jennifer Sherman, Trinity '14, referred to that very line in her address at this year’s Commencement Ceremony, noting that it and other words given to her by Angelou were instrumental in guiding her Duke experience.

Angelou's writing includes essays, poems, plays and autobiographical works. Her best-known piece is the autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," published in 1969 and detailing stories from her childhood. She is also well-known for her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning," which she recited at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.

Born in St. Louis and raised in Arkansas, Angelou lived in North Carolina after accepting the Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in 1982.

Outside of her writing, Angelou was involved in the civil rights movement, working with Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. She also spent time as a singer and dancer and has been nominated for Grammy and Tony awards.

President Barack Obama awarded Angelou with the Medal of Freedom in 2011. Several months later in the Duke Chapel, Angelou yet again reminded students to remember their humility and their humanity.

“We humans are more alike than we are unalike,” she said. “Come out and show who you really are.”


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