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Celebrated American Poet Maya Angelou Visits Ross

10/16/2007 --

"We are the miraculous," she tells the crowd. "The true wonder of this world."

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—"I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me." — Terence, 154 B.C.

Acclaimed poet Maya Angelou quoted this ancient passage to remind a 21st century audience of Ross School alumni that both art and science spring from a human source and are inextricably interdependent.

"Art and science are like one hand washing the other," Angelou said. "One hand trying to wash itself is a pitiful sight."

Angelou's remarks came during a presentation at Hill Auditorium Oct. 12 as part of the annual Ross School of Business Reunion Weekend. The somewhat unorthodox engagement—inviting a poet to speak to business professionals—illustrated Angelou's point that as humans, all of the arts and all of the sciences belong to all of us.

"I know I'm preaching to the choir," she said. "But sometimes the choir needs to be reminded. It is so important that we elevate ourselves to the level of being human. If you are a business person, you have to remember how human you are. So are your clients, your customers, your students, your loved ones. Even the math student can walk into the classroom and say, 'Pythagoras: He was a human being. So am I.'"

It is that shared humanity that connects all people across the vast elements of business and culture, said Angelou.

"As a poet, I agree with the mathematician that there is an order to all things. So, I say, if you are a poet welcome the scientist. And if you are a scientist, welcome the poet, the artist, the ballet dancer. Say yes to any good thing."

She offered an example from her own childhood to reveal how the prose of William Shakespeare helped her overcome a violent trauma that left her voluntarily mute. Despite the space and time that separated her from Shakespeare's reality, the long-silent Angelou felt so connected to the universal sense of alienation in Shakespeare's words, she was motivated to speak them aloud.

"I'd memorized so many of Shakespeare's sonnets that I came to believe he must have been Black," she said. "And probably a Black girl."

By having the curiosity and the courage to embrace that which we perceive to be alien, we as humans—especially in a vibrant university setting—can achieve anything, she said. The ancient pyramids or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are just two examples in which the marriage of art and science produced wonders the mind can barely comprehend. But lest we forget, it was from the minds of humans that these wonders were created. Angelou quoted herself then, alluding to the poem "A Brave and Startling Truth," which she presented at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

"We are the miraculous," she told the audience. "The true wonder of this world."

Story written by Deborah Holdship

The full text of "A Brave and Startling Truth," originally presented at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, follows.

A Brave and Startling Truth

Maya Angelou

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847