‘A truly phenomenal woman’

May. 29, 2014 @ 05:03 PM

“History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon

The day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream. …

Each new hour holds new chances

For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space to place new steps of change.”

Those lines are from the late Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning.”

Ms. Angelou, who died Wednesday at 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, “very likely received her widest exposure on a chilly January day in 1993,” the New York Times wrote Wednesday, when she read that poem at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as president.

That may have been her widest exposure on the national stage, but decades of Duke students know her best as a regular, revered speaker welcoming them to campus.

She first spoke to Duke freshmen in August 1989, part of an orientation program that, the student newspaper reported at the time, sought to expand students’ awareness of multicultural issues.

For the next 23 years, Ms. Angelou returned each year to welcome yet another class. “The more she started coming a few times, she made it clear that she loved Duke, that she loved being here,” Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said Wednesday.

Through the years, she reiterated many themes, each time, of course, to new ears.

“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,” a Duke news release said Wednesday. “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. 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.’”

Ms. Angelou was a towering figure.  She was a beloved poet, a memoirist perhaps best remembered for six autobiographical volumes, a vibrant voice for civil rights and women’s rights and a sought-after speaker making public appearances until ill health slowed her in recent months.

President Barack Obama called her “a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, noted the torrent of such tributes Wednesday.  “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,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the Class of 2018 and beyond will not be able to start off their time at Duke with those words."

It is a misfortune for us all that a great voice was stilled by her death this week.