When the United States government needed a voice that could speak with eloquence and authority “on behalf of the American people” to honor the life of revered South African human rights champion Nelson Mandela, it is no surprise the call went to Dr. Maya Angelou.
A day after Mandela’s Dec. 5 death, the State Department posted Angelou’s poem “His Day Is Done,” a moving tribute that draws power from its down-to-earth language and a fluency with race relations born of uncommon experience, both working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and in the world at large.
South Florida residents have the opportunity to hear Angelou in person on Thursday, when the 85-year-old poet, novelist, educator and civil rights activist makes one of her rare public appearances to talk about race relations at Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton.
Angelou, who describes herself as “optimistic” about race in America, isn’t sure what form her discussion will take — “I may use a poem or a song, I have no compunction” — but she says King’s courage and Mandela’s remarkable capacity for forgiveness are legacies that can be applied to anyone’s day-to-day life.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any of the other virtues consistently,” she says. “You can be anything erratically: kind, fair, true, generous, just and blah, blah. But to be that thing time after time … that tells you who you are.”
And there’s a flip side, she says: “You must have the courage to practice what you believe, and then have enough courage to examine it, to look at it and say, ‘You know, this doesn’t hold water. I don’t believe this anymore.’ “
In “His Day Is Done,” Angelou describes the victory of Mandela’s dignity and humanity as he left a South African prison after nearly three decades for violating the country’s brutal apartheid laws: “His stupendous heart intact, his gargantuan will hale and hearty, he had not been crippled by brutes, nor was his passion for the rights of human beings diminished …”
Angelou points out that when Mandela was elected president of South Africa, he invited his prison guards to sit in the front row for his inauguration.
“The very idea of a human being spending 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and coming out forgiving everybody,” she says. “That makes you want to look into yourself and say, ‘Am I carrying around some forgiving that I’ve just not done?’ There is much to be learned if you look into Mr. Mandela’s life.”
Angelou’s appearance at 7:30 p.m. Thursday is part of Congregation B’nai Israel’s inaugural speaker series, and celebrates three decades of social-justice work between CBI and Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Boca Raton, where the two organizations also will hold a joint interfaith service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
CBI’s Rabbi Andrew Rosenkranz says the excitement over Angelou’s visit is “beyond what words can express,” and all of the approximately 1,000 seats for the event have been sold.
“She is, as they say in Hebrew, giving us kavod. She is bringing great honor to this community,” Rosenkranz says.
For more information, go to CBIBoca.org.