May 24, 2008

Courage is the most important virtue, says writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou at Convocation

Maya Angelou
Jason Koski/University Photography
Maya Angelou speaks during Senior Convocation, May 24 in Schoellkopf Stadium.

Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently, said Maya Angelou to members of this year's graduating class.

"You can be kind and true and fair and generous and just, and even merciful, occasionally," Angelou said. "But to be that thing time after time, you have to really have courage."

A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, actress and civil rights activist (a colleague of Martin Luther King), Angelou addressed the Class of 2008 May 24 on a near-perfect, breezy afternoon in a crowded Schoellkopf Stadium.

Angelou, who celebrates her 80th birthday this year, used a cane to walk slowly to the lectern, and she sat for most of her talk. ("I won't trouble you to tell you why," she said.) She exhorted the graduates to pay tribute to their ancestors by courageously making the world better.

She asked them to take a moment, with gratitude, to reflect on their ancestors -- whether from Europe, Asia, Africa or elsewhere -- and the persecution and hardship they faced, and how they had wanted better for their children and grandchildren.

"It is up to you. So much is up to you," she said, calling it "no small matter" to be graduating from Cornell.

Taking up the theme of courage, Angelou challenged her audience to try for a week not using any "racial pejoratives," "sexual bashing" terms, or to laugh at others' expense. She assured her listeners that they will like themselves more. She confessed herself to leaving a room when such words are used, because they were created to "dehumanize."

That was the message Angelou left the audience with, as she recited the words of a song she wrote after witnessing a stranger spit on two young people on a London street corner. She said it was the first time she had recited the work to a graduating class.

If you know that youth
is dying on the run
and my daughter trades
dope stories with your son
we'd better see
what all our
fearing and our
jeering and our
crying and
our lying
brought about.
Take time out.

Angelou's witty and wise, yet affable, talk inspired Dawn Randall, a graduating MBA from the Johnson School who grew up reading Angelou's work.

"It was very moving, very powerful," she said.