By Dr. Walter Greason
Mexico City, DF, Mexico
28 May 2015
I remember opening her limousine door, expecting a small woman who needed assistance. Maya Angelou placed her foot on the ground and stood up. And up. And up. It had taken a year to organize and secure the funding for her visit. She was actually larger in life than her public persona was.
She was the most prominent African American to visit Villanova University since Dr. Martin Luther King had done so, thirty years earlier.
When the lights shone on the stage, I was blinded and had to do her introduction from memory – looking like I was praying to the sold out crowd in the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. She bathed in the glow and amplified it for the audience. Her smile broke through a generation of denial and abuse that crafted a silent, apolitical stereotype of Black students, student-athletes, and faculty.
She embodied the revolution we had aspired to create.
Her words — syllable by syllable — validated the creation of the Africana Studies program and emboldened the student organizations that had transformed the campus. No one left that speech able to maintain previous commitments to the old ways of segregation and discrimination.
In the years that followed, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Desmond Tutu, and Anthea Butler followed in her footsteps, inspiring new leaders to carry the legacy of interdisciplinary education and global leadership to new heights. But no one did what Maya did – she liberated an entire institution. And it was just another day in her life.
Before she left, she asked me to look after her mother, to make sure she got home safely. I initially resisted, wanting to spend a few more minutes talking with her. She held my arm and said, “I’m trusting you.”
I complied and held firm to my task. In later conversations, she told me to use my graduate studies to build institutions that would care for more elders as well as younger generations who needed guidance. She was my inspiration for creating the UJIMA Collective in 1997, and her words continue to guide me daily.
Her film, Down in the Delta, is a touchstone for my life. If you haven’t seen it, take two hours this week to watch. It captures (and, in my opinion, solves) the debate Ta-Nehisi Coates brought to national attention last week. It teaches the same lesson I attempted to offer in The Path to Freedom.
Mother Angelou, you still live through all of us who follow you. Thank you for your boundless love and creativity.