COLUMBIA — The lights dimmed, the curtains parted and everyone in the packed auditorium at Jesse Hall rose to their feet cheering. Maya Angelou leaned back in a wooden chair, singing “And the walls came tumbling down” in a low, raspy voice.
Angelou spoke for about an hour and a half Thursday night at Jesse Hall, primarily about college students and how they should use the knowledge they receive to tear down the “walls of ignorance.”
“When the walls come tumbling down, you are the ones who will ascend,” she said.
Angelou, 83, also centered her speech around a quote from an African playwright named Terence Afer who wrote in Rome in 154 B.C. He said, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”
Angelou encouraged college students to take the quote to heart. She said it would give them the courage to accomplish great things and to start tearing down the walls of ignorance.
Angelou stressed the importance of poetry. She said poetry helps a person realize he or she is a human being. She wanted students to go to the library and read some poetry that related to what they needed that day.
“If you need to cry, find the poetry,” she said. “If you need to be brave, find the poetry.”
Angelou read two of her poems, “The Health Food Diner” and “Brave and Startling Truth.” She said she attached special significance to “Brave and Startling Truth” because she delivered it to the United Nations on its 50th anniversary.
She said she was 16, 6 feet tall and pregnant when the United Nations was founded. She never imagined she would be able to deliver a poem in front of the members.
Angelou also talked about receiving the 2010 Medal of Freedom from President Obama. She said she thought of all the different races of people who came to the United States.
“I accepted the Medal of Freedom for all of us,” she said.
Angelou said she wanted to represent all types of people whenever she speaks and warned the audience to be intolerant of racial or sexual slurs. She said she never lets anyone use any type of slur in her presence.
“It’s poison,” she said. “It was created to dehumanize people.”
Angelou’s speech was laden with stories from her past. She talked about her childhood and imitated her family members. She talked about people's reactions to her on planes and how she now takes buses everywhere. She reminisced about the times she spent out of the country and talked about her son.
The audience reacted to Angelou’s speech with a range of emotion. They laughed at the stories of her past. They gasped as she retold her account of being raped as a young girl. They fell into reverent silence as she read some of her poetry.
“I was just so blown away, just to be in her presence,” Columbia resident Armine Cuber said. “It was a beautiful experience.”
MU student Bridgit Bowden was pleasantly surprised by Angelou’s speech because it was conversational. She said she would always remember how much Angelou stressed knowledge and the quote from Terence.
"That'll probably stick with me the most," she said.