Maya Angelou, a towering figure in American letters and culture who died last week at age 86, spoke at Gonzaga University on Nov. 1, 2000 for the Arnold Lecture. Following is the story in the Winter 2001 issue of Gonzaga Magazine that recounts her stunning performance and includes excerpts from an interview with her.
Soul on a Roll
By Peter Tormey
With her soul-on-a-roll performance, Maya Angelou demonstrated to a packed Martin Centre crowd why she is considered one of America’s all-time voices of literature. The audience sat spellbound, save for joyful eruptions, as the sassy septuagenarian, shifting from right to left but never sitting down, reeled seamlessly from poem to story to song.
Literature, she said, is ultimately about coming to know and save oneself.
“In the literature, you will find it,” she told the audience over and over again. “You need these stories desperately.”
Afterward, many audience members said the (Nov. 1, 2000) performance was the best they had ever witnessed.
It was a coup for Gonzaga religious studies Professor Helen Doohan, who in her first year as the Alphonse A. and Geraldine F. Arnold Professor of the Humanities, brought Angelou to campus.
“I think people know now why I have referred to her as a true international treasure,” Doohan said after the performance.
The morning after her presentation, Angelou, who has published 10 best-selling books and numerous magazine articles earning her Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations and a multitude of other awards, agreed to her only interview while in Spokane.
In the interview, Angelou said she hopes her words inspire people to greater love.
“That’s my hope, always, to encourage people to realize what they have already and how love – not indulgences – but how love itself prepares us to run on, to continue to be better than we were, stronger than we were, kinder than we were, fairer than we were,” Angelou said.
Told about Gonzaga’s mission to transform people to serve others, the writer said:
“I don’t dare try to think that what I’m doing is my mission. I want to be of use, my work must be of use or I won’t do it. I don’t want to be misused, used or overused or abused. I do believe that a person who can’t be of use is useless. That sounds glib, but I don’t mean it that way. The family of man and woman needs for us to be of use in our city, in our state,” she said. “It is, I think, to tacitly say to the Creator: ‘I’m ready, however you want me. If you tell me what to do, if you put me there, I will do my best.’ As far as the actual transformation, I hope that something I say makes a person feel better about himself or herself or better about the world or about life. I hope so. I hope something I write uplifts a black man, a black woman, a white man, a white woman. I work at it.”
Asked what motivates her, Angelou cited the adage that a great speaker may have five topics but one theme – and she believes that applies to great writers, also.
“I think I may have in my raison d’etre, in my reason for being, the idea that you may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated. That’s one of the things I like to impart without actually saying it to young people. In fact it may even be necessary to encounter the defeats to find out who you really are and to move out on faith. That’s one theme,” she said.
“I suppose the other is ‘I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me.’ That means no matter how heinous a crime is if a human being committed it, then I as a human being could never say ‘I could never do that.’ I can say ‘I may never do that: I intend to use my energy constructively.’ If I can accept that in the negative way I can accept it in the positive way. If a human being has a great dream, if a human being loves someone and has the gall to accept love in return, that means I can do it. I’m afraid of the person who says ‘I’m a positive thinker’ but doesn’t admit there is a negative. You have to say ‘there is a negative but I choose the positive.’ ”
When asked what image she has of God, the person so gifted with imagination said she doesn’t see a man with a grey beard or a woman in a white flowing robe – only Spirit.
“I think of Spirit,” the poet said and after a pause, added: “I know this, that if I couldn’t make a leaf or have the imagination to create a brindled cat, how on Earth could I imagine what God looks like? All I know is I know myself to be a child of God and that is as humbling as can be and suddenly I am smaller than a mustard seed and I am taller than the Himalayas.”