I hate to look back and identify regrets from my past, but I’d be selling myself short if I never did. In hindsight, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done was to skip out on the Duke Freshman Convocation in August 2012. For twenty-four years straight, from to 1990 until 2014, convocation was synonymous with one of Duke’s greatest opportunities: the chance to hear Maya Angelou speak. First invited as part of the “Vision for Duke” program, Ms. Angelou returned each year to preach shared sacrifice, hard work and humility to the community’s newest members.
Born Margueritte Johnson in St. Louis in 1928, Ms. Angelou lived in a vastly changing America and valiantly confronted tragedy and challenge in her life. At age eight she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who subsequently went to jail for only a day as punishment. Upon being released, the man was killed and Angelou blamed herself for the murder and chose to go mute for over five years. A teacher of Ms. Angelou, Bertha Flowers, is credited with exposing the legendary poet to the English language’s great artists. At the height of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, however, was when the black Maya Angelou truly began to shine. As John Nichols writes in the Nation, “Maya Angelou was not only a participant in the Civil Rights struggles… she was on the staff.” Marching in Egypt, Ghana and America, Angelou promoted opportunity for all through her writings and plays. On her fortieth birthday in 1968, one of her friends and heroes Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, inspiring Angelou to focus on her writing to continue their shared vision of a more inclusive United States. Nearly twenty-five years later, Angelou was invited to read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The lesson of inclusivity and opportunity resonated when she concluded, “They hear. They all hear…”
On May 28, 2014, Maya Angelou passed away from old age. She was the ultimate unifier, a compassionate, devout and kind spirit who wished only the best upon all she met. She was a hero not only to the people she marched with but to the history, character and people of our nation and the world.
Ms. Angelou’s death presented an important decision for Duke: who should carry on tradition and address the Class of 2019 at convocation this fall? I learned last week that the honor went to MSNBC host and Wake Forest University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, a former student of Angelou’s. Respectfully, the selection of Harris-Perry to keep alive Angelou’s spirit is a disgrace to Duke University and the legendary poet herself.
First, whereas Angelou is a unifier in the toughest of times, Harris-Perry is a provocateur gratified by her stoking of tension. On her irrelevant MSNBC show, Harris-Perry and her roundtable are a weekly panel of nastiness. They’ve mocked and ridiculed Mitt Romney and his family for Romney’s son’s adoption of a black child. She famously wished that Trayvon Martin “whipped the [expletive]” out of George Zimmerman and, even more irresponsibly, continued to peddle the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” lie even as evidence and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice said otherwise. I’m trying to imagine Angelou encouraging violence as activism, maligning a family or peddling a lie to benefit her cause, and I can’t. The poet was about hope, speech and change, and her student is about nothing more than condescending and destructive messaging.
Even worse, Harris-Perry managed to manifest her con artistry on Duke’s campus itself. Less than ten years removed from the Duke lacrosse case, those responsible for bringing Harris-Perry to campus apparently do not remember her “contributions” to our community during the tumultuous investigation. During the investigation, a pathetic “Group of 88” Duke Professors abandoned due process and publicly convicted the accused lacrosse players without evidence, citing only the lacrosse players' “privilege” as proof of rape. When the investigation and accusation turned out to be a hoax, the Group of 88 quickly tried to reverse course (Note to President Brodhead — please fire all remaining professors from the group still at Duke). Only one person was ridiculous enough to defend the Group of 88 publicly: Melissa Harris-Perry. She complained in her book “Sister Citizen” that “In the aftermath of the findings of innocence, the false accuser and those who uncritically accepted her honesty are subjected to public ridicule, just as they had earlier subjected the young men to ridicule.” Harris-Perry had the gall to defend the group and false accuser/indicted murderer Crystal Magnum from the very public anger she wished upon the lacrosse players early in the investigation.
Harris-Perry is an insult to the activism, leadership and unifying presence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou. She is a tax delinquent (an MSNBC host requirement, apparently) and believes wearing tampon earrings from the comfort of a New York City studio is activism. Harris-Perry is, for all intents and purposes, the exact opposite of everything Maya Angelou was. I pray that for convocation next year, Harris-Perry is far away and someone with more guts, presence and grace takes her place. It’s only fair to the legacy of the legend, Maya Angelou.
Max Schreiber is a Pratt senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.