They Brought the Powerful Autobiography of Maya Angelou to Life
by Kathy Garfinkle
The Fremont Branch of the American Association of University Women and the Irvington High School American Studies Program presented a remarkable program on December 2nd at the Fremont Main Library’s Fukaya Room.
Juniors from the High School’s Center for the Creative Arts, along with their teachers Ms. Hillier, Ms. Mangiardi, Mr. Mintey, and Ms. McAuley, and in collaboration with AAUW’s One Book, One Community Read Project, created a tribute to Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Some of the program was live and much of it was beautifully presented on video.
The students brought the life of this extraordinary woman to the audience through visual and performance arts, music, poetry and the spoken word. The program opened with a “spoken word” video that included piano and flute. Inspired by the powerful writing of Maya Angelou, students wrote and performed their original “Found Poems.” They sang the Negro National Anthem based on the poem of James Weldon Johnson with music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. Students displayed the beautiful quilt they created that featured a “Caged Bird.”
Many significant events in African-American history were highlighted in the dramatic presentations including the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment; the enforcement of Jim Crow Laws from 1880 to 1960; and the Nation of Islam movement inspired by Marcus Garvey. The Brown versus Board decision established that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Plessy Decision set the precedent that “separate” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These were just a few of the milestones emphasized in the struggle of Africa-Americans.
The program also featured inspiring quotes from the “Caged Bird.” Maya Angelou wrote about her disappointing experience on graduation day. The white principal that spoke at the ceremony left the graduates with the message that they were only meant to be “maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen.” To aspire to anything more would be presumptuous according to him. The energy and excitement were drained from the young graduates until the valedictorian led the crowd in singing the Negro National Anthem. Angelou writes: “I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.”
The young people displayed talent and creativity in their performances and displays. They presented a video in which they dramatized the Joe Lewis fight that made him champion of the world. Dancers performed a very uplifting African-American dance entitled “Egwu ndi Oma” that was a celebration of that fight. One of the most moving videos showed the students creating a structure in their courtyard depicting the graduation scene described by Maya Angelou complete with black silhouette cutouts at every seat and one white silhouette on the stage.
The program concluded with an original composition entitled “Running Free” performed on keyboard by Scott Lloyd. While listening to the beautiful melody, I could close my eyes and picture children racing out to the playground, butterflies taking flight and gazelles running in the desert, grasslands, and savannas of Africa.
The audience, mainly of AAUW members, applauded and thanked the students from Irvington High School who displayed their talent and creativity in an awesome program that brought the poetry of Maya Angelou so poignantly to everyone in the room.