Maya Angelou, the multi-talented, internationally acclaimed writer, performance artist, actress, historian and civil rights activist, died at the age of 86. She is remembered at the College of William & Mary mostly as the guest speaker at the 1993 convocation.
Long before she attained extra fame by reading her original poem at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, Angelou had been an admired personality at W&M. In her appearance on the campus in 1987, in a program called "Walking the Words," she showcased her multiple talents. She read from her autobiographical works, from poems and songs she wrote, and shared personal reminiscences.
Following her lecture, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, Angelou recalled that as a young girl, she had an intimate, but clandestine, relationship with William Shakespeare.
"I read his works with total devotion," she said. "My grandmother often expressed her approval of my reading habit. But, I couldn't keep the news that Shakespeare was white forever from her. No matter that he was dead for centuries, my grandmother didn't approve of that friendship."
Angelou, in her address to students at W&M, described her childhood, which she spent surrounded by rural poverty, her struggles to survive, and finally to succeed. On the way to becoming a best-selling author, she made hundreds of television appearances, was subject of an hour-long interview by Bill Moyers on PBS and received a number of honorary doctorates.
In the 1960s, at the request of Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. With a background like that, she was well tuned to advise young people, black or white, that "Freedom is a full-time job. To achieve it and protect it, you have to be an activist."
She said, "First, you must read, read, read. You must learn that whatever is happening, however you feel about it, is not a unique, isolated experience. You need to read Victor Hugo, Maxim Gorky and the other great classics to realize that 'it is not just me out there.'"
Angelou, recalling her own experiences, advised young people to realize, "Each person is an individual endowed by different talents, aspirations. One maybe is good at writing poems, another at taking care of children in a community center, while somebody else would prefer to engage in protest, walk the picket line. It doesn't matter what goals one is pursuing. What I am saying is, have courage to accomplish whatever you set out to do."
Angelou's lecture in 1987 at W&M may not have achieved all the goals she aimed for. But her ability to speak out authoritatively on countless subjects and the example of her life and achievements has surely left a mark.
I have quoted one of the students, waiting to congratulate her: "Well, until now, I bothered with Shakespeare only when I had to. But after listening to you, I guess, I want him as a friend, too."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.