The occasion mattered not. When Maya Angelou spoke, her entire audience paid attention.
When the legendary poet, civil rights activist, and educator made what would be her final visit to Northeastern in 2010, she was well into her 80s. But her age did nothing to quell the message she delivered at Blackman Auditorium that night, says Brandon Isaacson, DMSB’14, who attended the event.
“I wanted to take the opportunity to behold her presence,” Isaacson recalls. “I was taken by her unpretentious zest for life. I anticipated someone who’d be more formal, but actually she was simple yet effective with her language, whether reading poetry or just speaking to the crowd.”
It’s that passion for life that the Northeastern community and the world remembered on Wednesday after it was learned that Angelou died at her home in North Carolina at the age of 86.
Her words, both written and spoken, inspired millions. Whether people knew her from her several books of poetry, her appearances on Sesame Street, her inauguration poem for President Bill Clinton in 1993, or her Twitter feed, Angelou’s global popularity knew no bounds.
She received numerous awards and accolades for her writing, as well as her influence on American culture. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, she won a Grammy in 1995, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Her relationship with Northeastern dates back several decades. She has spoken at freshman convocation, and in 1992 she was invited to address graduating seniors at commencement, where she received an honorary doctor of fine arts.
Thirteen years later Angelou returned to campus for a lecture, an event that sold out in less than 24 hours. Before her talk, Angelou said she admired Northeastern for of its diverse pool of students, noting that, “They just seem to cast a wide net.”
She encouraged the capacity crowd that night to show courage because “without courage you cannot practice any other virtue.”
Others in the Northeastern community have had more personal experiences with Angelou.
Ray Greene, an adjunct voice lecturer in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, got the opportunity of a lifetime a few years ago when he was handpicked by Angelou to sing a collection of inspirational hymns a cappella style at the Boston Opera House before she was slated to speak there.
“It’s easily one of the highlights of my musical career,” Greene said Wednesday. “It was unbelievable. She is one of the premier poets and writers of my lifetime for sure.”
Prior to going on stage, Greene had the chance to meet Angelou, telling her how much he respected and admired her work. “I am a big fan of hers,” he said.
While primarily known for her poetry, Angelou also wrote seven autobiographies including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which covers the first 17 years of her life and brought her international recognition.
Kimberly Juanita Brown, an assistant professor in the Department of English whose research focuses on 20th-century African American literature, said she teaches I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in her classes because of its powerful human voice.
“I would say in general the memoir is traumatic, but you do come away from that text believing in the power of the human voice,” she said. “There is a sense of hope in the memoir.”