Humanities Symposium Keynote Speaker: Maya Angelou
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Humanities Symposium Keynote Speaker: Maya Angelou

When hundreds of thousands of people stand before the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial October, they will see not only the long-awaited monument to the civil rights leader, but also President Barack Obama, Aretha Franklin, Steve Wonder and Dr. Maya Angelou, the latter soon to be en route to Belmont.

Angelou, a longtime activist for the rights of all people, will participate in the unveiling and dedication of the King memorial in Washington, D.C., more than 48 years after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

She’s not only an activist, but also an acclaimed writer. Angelou is the author of the bestselling memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which is the first volume of a trilogy that begins with a childhood marked by abuse and racism. Among her best-known poems are “On the Pulse on the Morning,” which she delivered at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton, and “Still I Rise.”

With this year’s “Liberating Voices” theme for the Humanities Symposium, it only makes sense that Angelou’s voice is prominent in the events from Sept. 14-21. In advance of her appearance at Belmont, editor Brian Wilson interviewed her by phone for the Vision.

Belmont Vision: How has Dr. King’s work and legacy brought us close to moving past our history?

Maya Angelou: I believe we haven’t moved past our history. That’s wishful thinking. But … thanks to the gifts he’s given us, we are doing things other than we did. We still have some nincompoops in our midst, so there will be some actions that are not at the top of the level of the human being. But we are doing better. We actually are embarrassed when we hear police attacking unarmed people who are marching. That wasn’t always the case. We’ve come a long way. Not nearly as far as we have to come mind you, but we’ve come a long way.

BV: What do you feel is the next step?

MA: Mr. Wilson, if I knew that, I would go to the White House. I would go to Times Square. I’d go to Music Row in Nashville, and I would give out my information. I probably would sell it. It would come out of the next country western song by Toby Keith or Martina McBride. It would be the next poem I would write. I don’t know what the next step is. The person who knows that may not be born yet, but we will continue to move ahead. That’s all we can do. And we might seem to fall back, but in truth, we’re moving ahead.

BV: What is your impression on the younger generation, the next generation? What do you think we need to do to move ahead?

MA: I am very hopeful. The next generation is very hopeful. It’s very hard to teach the new generation to remember and try to develop memories. We live in the present so much, but it’s important to remember what went before. But I think that this generation is better armed. One of the reasons is that they are better informed, and so they know a few things. They will be disappointed in some things, which I hope will not make them bitter, but will make them better. Better informed and better ready to go the next step of the way. You see it’s the young men and women who, having read what went before, who will make the change in the future.

BV: Because of Dr. King’s work, how has our culture been affected, beyond the obvious?

MA: The entry of Mr. Obama and many things. Many, many things. During Mr. Clinton’s presidency, he had Ms. Alexis Herman as secretary of labor. And during that time, there were blacks and whites and Spanish speakers and women in and … now we have it so in this presidency. It’s very important that balance is what is necessary. That is balance in the living room, balance in the family. Balance in the community, in the city, in the state, and in our country. That is to say we have to have everyone represented. If everybody isn’t represented, the conglomeration is out of order, top heavy. It doesn’t work very well, and it won’t work forever. I like the fact that we are now thinking more and more of women being in positions of strength. That doesn’t mean they are right, but that they have the right to be wrong.

BV: How do you feel we can ensure all people, like the ones you’ve mentioned, will get a chance to come to anyone’s table and have their voice be heard?

MA: You’re the person you’ll have to ask. You and your colleagues. You and your contemporaries. I hope that you will always go back to the elders and ask things. Even though you’re reading everything, still ask questions. What do you think of this move? Because the older people will have some wisdom. But you are the person who will be the up and coming, the up and doing. So, I think we older people do you a disfavor if we don’t tell you everything we know. Everything we know.

Getting there

Dr. Maya Angelou will be the keynote speaker at the 10th Annual Humanities Symposium Sept. 14-21. Her appearance is at 7 p.m., Monday, Sept. 19, in the Curb Event Center. Tickets are free, but limited. Information is available at www.belmont.edu/angelou.

Nearly 30 events, including speakers, panels, and workshops on this year’s theme, “Liberating Voices,” are part of the event.

Featured speakers include former director of Amnesty International USA Rafia Zakaria; Tennessee State University professor Dr. Rebecca Dixon; University of Texas-El Paso professor Dr. Kirsten Negro; and poet and essayist Nancy Mairs.

Convocation credit will be offered at all events. More information on the events, including a schedule, is at http://www.belmont.edu/cas/humanities_symposium/.