“I encourage you to think of me as a teacher,” implored Maya Angelou. “The truth is I am a teacher who can write.”
Angelou is much more than a teacher and a writer. The illustrious educator, poet, novelist, actress, historian, film producer and human rights activist spent an evening addressing a few hundred students, faculty and guests at Cheyney University’s Marian Anderson Music Center on Thursday.
“Each one of us is a rainbow in the clouds,” she stated shortly after the curtain opened and she was welcomed by warm, thunderous applause. “We have the possibility to be someone’s rainbow in the clouds.”
Humble and modest beyond measure, Angelou, 83, went against her physician’s orders, traveling from her Winston-Salem, N.C., home to spend an evening speaking in Delaware County. “Retired means expired. I keep on going as long as I continue to be wanted,” she said before visiting the campus.
In her distinct, deliberate speaking style, Angelou said she is “impressed with Cheyney University and the students of the Keystone Honors Academy. “This is the right place for them to come.”
In addition to hosting nationally and internationally renowned scholars and speakers, the Keystone Honors Academy has one of the highest graduation rates of African-American college students in the country.
Prior to Angelou’s gracing the stage, alumni of the Academy shared their testimonies on what the program has meant to their lives.
Alumnus Christopher Carter, a 2011 graduate currently pursuing a law degree at the University of Pittsburgh, said, “I admire Dr. Angelou’s ability to express herself, open everyone’s hearts and find ways to touch them.” The Pittsburgh native is also the vice president of the University of Pittsburgh’s Black Law Student Association.
As Angelou recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, self proclaimed “nontraditional” Keystone Honors Academy student Rashid Salahud-Din found himself reciting along with her. “I learned the sonnet preparing for a play here at Cheyney. It was a memory exercise,” said the 63-year-old Vietnam veteran, father of 11 and grandfather of 29. “She was amazing. Eloquent, sophisticated and real.” The 1966 Overbrook High School graduate is studying psychology and acts as a dormitory resident adviser.
“I have a tattoo of ‘Still I Rise,’ said first-year Academy student Sierra-Katherine Brooks of Carlisle. “I’m really excited to see her.” The track and field student-athlete has a full scholarship and acts as a student ambassador for prospective Cheyney students. “Whenever I go through a rough time, I am inspired by her (Angelou) to keep going.”
Cheyney University President Michelle Howard-Vital said she was delighted to host such an “icon” and “have Dr. Angelou share her thoughts in a venue like this. Our students and the Keystone Honors Academy are fortunate to share this experience with people that have come from many areas throughout our region.”
John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, echoed the sentiments of President Howard-Vital: “This is a fantastic opportunity for not only Cheyney University, but for the state of Pennsylvania. The Keystone Honors Academy program is one of the state’s jewels.”
“It is very important for a young Black person to go for their first college degree at an HBCU — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — so that she or he can be introduced to great ideas of people like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and 18th-century writers of African descent,” Angelou said in an interview before her appearance.
Throughout her life Angelou has lived by and utilized the words she shares with audiences around the world. “Language can be beautiful, and used as a device like clothes are used to keep us warm. Read aloud to hear the language — to hear it in your own words.”
Angelou has gained global respect and admiration, often being referred to as a powerful voice for the masses for her accomplishments. “I know that I am thought of highly, and for that, I am grateful. I have an attitude of gratitude,” she said. “All great achievements require time.”
In her signature, deeply raw yet rich and compassionate oration, Angelou reiterated her message before leaving the stage: “I am a man. I consider nothing that is human alien to me,” reciting Terence, an African playwright of the Roman Republic. “Develop the courage to be a human being,” she encouraged, and urged the audience. “Be that rainbow in someone else’s clouds.”
“She left blessings with each of us,” said Keystone Honors Academy Dean Tara Kent,
Founded as the African Institute in 1837, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania is the oldest of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America.