Celebrate, Remember and Continue: Remarks at Maya Angelou’s 90th Birthday Celebration

Good evening! Thank you for joining us to celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou.

Tonight, we gather on what would be Maya Angelou’s 90th birthday. As you all know, Maya Angelou came from humble beginnings, but engaged in a lifelong – and fearless – pursuit of what inspired her. She realized success on her terms and possessed the courage to care about all people. She was a towering figure, a national voice, and an international inspiration. But here, on this campus she called home and in this community she claimed as her own, she was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend to many.

It is hard to believe that Maya Angelou’s voice has been silent for nearly four years. But it is not hard to believe that her legacy has inspired many to continue speaking – speaking up for the oppressed; speaking out against injustice; speaking anew to love and joy and hope and courage.

We are here to celebrate our friend, but we must also remember that this day once silenced another magnificent voice – one that declared a mighty dream.

Fifty years ago, Maya Angelou was in her kitchen in New York preparing for a dinner party. The phone rang, and on the other end was Dolly McPherson, a friend and Wake Forest professor. Dolly told Maya to avoid watching TV, listening to the radio or answering the phone; she was coming right over. When the bell rang, Maya opened the door and Dolly shared the devastating news: “Martin Luther King is dead.” It was Maya’s 40th birthday.

Maya had worked with Dr. King and been part of the Civil Rights Movement. After that birthday dinner party, she had planned to join Dr. King in his work, this time with the Poor People’s March. But instead of that march, the entire nation observed a funeral march.

After Dr. King’s death, Maya stopped celebrating her birthday for several years, and each year on this day, Maya and Coretta Scott King sent one another flowers.

For Maya Angelou, April 4th started as a day of celebration. Then, it turned into a day of remembrance. Then, it became a day to take action and support others. Tonight, we will continue to do all three. Through the voices of her friends, we will celebrate; through those inspired by her, we will remember; and through our commitment to her legacy, we will continue to take action and support each other.

Maya walked on mountaintops and persevered through valleys with grace, courage and strength. As a great artist, she created; as a great citizen, she advocated; as a great teacher, she inspired; and as a great human, she loved. We honor her and carry forth her legacy when we walk with courage, share hope in affliction, laugh in the midst of despair and love unconditionally.

Thank you for being here tonight to celebrate, remember and continue the legacy of our friend, Maya Angelou.

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