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Remembering a Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou, a TC medalist, is recalled by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz


Dr. Maya Angelou

Dr. Maya Angelou

Yolanda Sealey Ruiz, Assistant Professor of English Education,  reflects on poet, author and activist Maya Angelou, who passed away on May 28th. Angelou received TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service in 1991.  “Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou, 1928-2014”  is a pop-up exhibit currently on display at The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
“I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me” is the mantra Dr. Maya Angelou often spoke when she opened her public talks. These are words that have greatly influenced my teaching and the way I interact with others.  In her own teaching, and the thousands of speeches she gave around the world during her lifetime, Maya Angelou constantly reminded us of our equal and inherent humanity. Among her many lessons, she taught us that in spite of the differences used over time to create disharmony among us, it was our duty to (re)learn ways to accept and love our fellow human. She emphasized the importance of living a life of integrity, and showing courage in the face of adversity.
Angelou’s passing on May 30, 2014, at the age of 86, gave reason for many, from all walks of life, to pause and reflect on what she contributed and offered to America and the world. A fervent poet, dancer, author, journalist, actor, director, and educator, Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, (a date she celebrated until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). She lived with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, the place that served as the backdrop of her National Book Award-winning memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou reminded her fellow humans to develop courage in small ways; to take a stand on issues of importance to others, to exploit moments that furthered our humanity, and to “develop the courage to live a courageous life." In the wake of her passing, I join millions who celebrate her life and her tireless efforts to have all citizens of the world live up to the potential of their full humanity – to see the life of another as valuable as their own. I am grateful for the opportunity to have met her once, and to have heard her speak at The Schomburg Center and Riverside Church in New York City in 2010. I am grateful for how she used her own life as a model of how to live with courage. I, too, am grateful for the brilliance she left behind in her books, movies, speeches and interviews, and for the ways her work and very existence have deeply touched my life. What is so remarkable is that I join so many people – those who are famous and those who claim no celebrity – who could write a similar reflection of gratitude for Dr. Maya Angelou, a truly phenomenal woman.

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