Saturday, February 06, 1999
"It's amazing what you are able to do, and how many lives are touched," said Angelou, the Presidential Guest Speaker. "Even at the worst time, one can see a possibility of hope." She cited the example of her son, who was paralyzed in an auto accident, but is now able to walk, due to the expertise of an orthopaedic surgeon.
James D. Heckman, MD, President of the Academy, said he chose Angelou as speaker to put a humanistic spirit into medical education. "We are overwhelmed with new science and new technology," he said. "However, we should come away from this meeting with more than just new medical information. It has been said that we are fine technicians, but lack the sensitivity and caring touch so often desired by our patients. With those thoughts in mind I have selected Maya Angelou, who I know will bring some balance and much beauty to these proceedings."
Currently, Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University, Angelou is author of 10 books. She is director of the film "Down in the Delta," and is a poet, historian, journalist, actress, and civil rights activist. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
Quoting a folk description of the human skeleton in the spiritual "Dry Bones," she told orthopaedic surgeons that "when you see the magic, you almost glow. You go back to the premise of why you got into business."
Remembering her childhood in segregated Arkansas, she said, "One needs to know that others have had sad times. One survives with compassion, humor and style." Asserting that she survived with poetry, she punctuated her speech with quotations from African-American poetry and spirituals.
Angelou has held several academic positions in the Ivy League, the University of California, and England. As her own inspirations she cited her uncle, who forcefully taught her the multiplication tables, and her grandmother, who said she could become a teacher. She quoted her grandmother as saying, "When you learn, teach. When you get, give."
Angelou recalled that a young woman ceased frequent suicide attempts after hearing one of her inspirational speeches. "Since life is our most precious gift, let us dedicate all our conscious lives to liberation of the human mind and spirit," she told her enthusiastic audience. "We human beings are more alike than unalike. Everybody wants healthy children, safe streets and love. Everybody wants someplace to party on Saturday night."