Know Thy Neighbor

Reflections on Class with Maya Angelou; In Memoriam

We know the great ones among us both by their presence when they are with us and by their palpable absence when they are gone. I write this still unsure how to respond to the death of Maya Angelou. I don’t know, except that I have some remembering to do.

In the spring of 2001, a few months shy of my graduation from Wake Forest, I enrolled in “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance.” The pass/fail course was exactly what its title sounds like it would be: students reading poems in a performance setting. Some might ask, what could be more useless? Is this not the very decadent navel gazing that has fated the humanities to irrelevance?

In fact, few courses have been as useful to me. This is because it embodied the very essence of the humanities: to passionately and effectively communicate the verse of another is to perceive for oneself and to share with others some insight into the human condition. Granted, this was a high risk/high reward scenario. A class on how to read poetry could be terrible. Fortunately, we were in good hands.

Dr. Angelou began teaching at Wake Forest in the early 1980s. Her role on campus evolved over the years.  At every opportunity, I registered for her “World Poetry” course and finally, in my last semester, I got in.

People matter more than anything else. To know them is to know life. That was at the heart of her message. She communicated this in three primary ways.

The first was the poems themselves. “People are more alike than different.” This was her refrain throughout the course. Are you an African-American with a Southern drawl? Good. Try reading some Robert Burns with a Scottish accent. Own it. Preach it proudly. Are you a fraternity brother? How about some Alice Dunbar Nelson or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Make it yours. Imagine yourself as the author, feeling what they might have felt, thinking what they might have thought, but without overthinking. She quoted MacLeish here: “A poem should not mean but be.”

Before we could get to the poetry, though, was a more important thing. We needed to know each other’s names. All 50 of us. Last names with titles, only please. “You should not give someone the right to call you by your first name too easily,” she told us. We balked and offered lame excuses. None of us was accustomed to being a mister or miss. A few of us knew each other by our first names, but like most college students at most universities, we were pretty clueless about one another’s surnames… and convinced of our own inability to learn them. Slowly but surely she proved us wrong. We spent the first month of class doing nothing but practicing one another’s last names until everyone in the room could name the last name of everyone else in the room. We had no business performing poetry together until we knew each other. Our names were the most basic, minimum form of that knowledge.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Dr. Angelou told us stories highlighting the human condition. One in particular has stuck with me as paradigmatic of her approach to life in general and teaching in particular. She spent significant time touring as part of a dance troupe. I believe that this particular event was while she was part of a production of “Porgie and Bess” in the mid-1950s. While the production was in what was then Yugoslavia, she went with some of her fellow performers outside of Sarajevo to mix with the locals. This was despite official instructions not to do so – it was a communist country, after all – but no student of life learns all that life has to offer by only ever following orders. In a family’s home on the countryside, an ancient Bosnian man told her, “When I was young, I remember: your father lived on the other side of the mountain from my father.” This was, of course, technically untrue. But for all of his misremembering of the facts, this gentleman recognized, like the sage who shared his story, a deeper truth: we are all neighbors. “We are all more alike than different.”

For Dr. Angelou’s life, words, and actions, we have much for which to be grateful. May we ever remember to see ourselves in strangers’ faces, just as she saw herself in ours.

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