On February 16th, Ball State held a tribute to author Maya Angelou, who died this past June.  English department faculty Prof. Mark Neely and Prof. Angela Jackson-Brown were both involved in planning the event, and Prof. Jackson-Brown spoke at the tribute.  The English Department asked sophomore English major Nikole Darnell to interview Prof. Jackson-Brown and to reflect on the event.

Prof. Angela Jackson-Brown speaking at the Maya Angelou Tribute. Photo courtesy of Jeff Owens.

Prof. Angela Jackson-Brown speaking at the Maya Angelou Tribute. Photo courtesy of Jeff Owens.

Almost every chair in Ball State’s Student Center Ballroom was full as people from all around packed in, eager to see the tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou that was sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity on Monday February 16, 2015.

While there were numerous Ball State students and faculty in attendance, the program also attracted several outside visitors. For instance, the gentleman sitting next to me said his group traveled from Ivy Tech to see the program.

It is an understatement to say that the tribute was spectacular—it was also beautiful, thought provoking, and, at times, moved me to tears.

Professor Angela Jackson-Brown of the Ball State English Department, one of the speakers at the tribute, graciously made time to speak with me about the event and her love for Dr. Angelou’s work. Professor Brown remembers becoming interested in poetry as a child when her father gave her a book of poems. It was then that she discovered Maya Angelou’s work and “all of these amazing black poets” and “that it was okay for [her] to write and explore [her] feelings through the written word.” It was obvious by the end of the night that Professor Brown was not the only one inspired by Dr. Angelou’s work.

Dancing 2

Devin Hill, during her dance routine.

A group of five young people known as the Artistic Outreach Voice Choir performed several of Dr. Angelou’s poems such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “Phenomenal Woman.” Next, Devin Hill performed a dance to a recorded version of “Pickin ‘Em Up.” Both groups were incredibly entertaining as they brought the poems to life and added their own artistic flavors into their routines.

The Artistic Outreach Voice Choir.

The Artistic Outreach Voice Choir.

Next, Professor Brown introduced the winners of the Poetry Slam, held the night before, and invited them to read their work out loud. Jajuan Philips, Tambra Bullock, and Albert Jennings took the stage one by one and performed their beautifully haunting pieces.

I remember being emotionally moved to hear these three young people speak their pieces out loud. Even now, I can still hear Miss Bullock’s words ringing in my ears: “Not wasted, just wasting,” referencing young people who waste their time being ridiculous and getting into trouble instead of making something of themselves. I was very inspired by these original poems. In my interview with Professor Brown, I had asked her about what kind of inspiration she drew from Dr. Angelou. She said:

“So much of Maya Angelou’s poetry and her work in general is about uplifting herself and others. Even when she writes about haplessness, she always leaves a door or window open for the reader to find hope anyway.”

She went on: “I remember reading her poem ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,’ and I loved how the piece ended. Although the bird remained caged, it still dreamed of freedom. I loved that idea, and as a result of that, I have always gravitated towards her work.”

Professor Brown’s love for Dr. Angelou is evident in every possible way, and listening to her description of her is enough to make me want to run off with a book of her poetry myself.

After the Poetry Slam winners, the crowd was entertained by the Voices of Triumph Choir singing the traditional African Spiritual, “Ride on King Jesus.”

Keynote Speaker, Stedman Graham.

Keynote Speaker, Stedman Graham.

This was followed by the keynote speaker for the evening, Stedman Graham. Graham, a Ball State University alum, dazzled the crowd with his uplifting speech, inspired by Dr. Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

“How do you rise?” Graham asked, looking around the faces hanging on his every word. “You can’t. The system isn’t set up for it. The system is set up for you to just be average. It’s set up for you to be a slave for the rest of your life.”

While this may sound discouraging at first, Graham did not intend for this to be the case. By this, Graham meant that you must work to be extraordinary and “wake up.” He described people that live their lives being “sleepwalkers” and said that they will never rise because they can’t “wake up.”

According to Graham, people are sleepwalkers because they can’t do anything else. He says that they have to be more self-aware and realize their potential. His speech was truly an inspiration and made me want to “wake up” and aspire to do more with my life.

In my interview with Professor Brown before the tribute, I had asked her what she thought the public could expect from the event. She answered:

“You can expect tears and laughter. You can expect joy, because above all else, Dr. Maya Angelou signifies unquenchable joy. She writes in her poem ‘Old Folks Laugh’ that ‘When old folks laugh, they free the world.’ Well, Dr. Angelou has freed the world for so many, but especially me.”

After attending the event, I certainly found Professor Brown’s words to be true. I experienced tears and laughter. And above all else, I experienced joy. Attending the event and seeing Dr. Angelou’s work brought to life made me feel proud to attend Ball State.

Thanks, Nikole!