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Vol. LXI, No. 22
October 30, 2009

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A Trailblazer, a Balm
Angelou Speaks On Courage, Love, Protest

On the front page...

There was a time, in 1930s Arkansas, when the school-age Maya Angelou hid her uncle from the night riders.

Men on horseback. The Ku Klux Klan.

“They weren’t wearing sheets,” she told a packed house in Masur Auditorium. “They didn’t need them.”



And now that life—being scorned, oppressed—is, for that little girl, a long time gone. She survived with courage to spare—and to share.

Masur Auditorium overflowed into Lipsett Amphitheater and every seat filled as Dr. Maya Angelou—trailblazing activist, singer, dancer, actress, producer, polyglot, educator and one of the most celebrated writers in America—opened the NIH Director’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture with a traditional African-American spiritual.

“There is a balm in Gilead,” she sang, in a rich contralto, “to make the wounded whole.”

And then she paused. The word, she said, was “balm.” Not “bomb.”

The audience was with her on that.

With balm as a refrain, interlaced with her poetry, stories and mother wit—common sense, uncommon wisdom—Angelou called for “creating an ambiance where people can be healthy.

“We need to talk about our balms,” she said.

She praised her extended family, her Arkansan grandmother who took her in, along with her brother, after their parents divorced “and did the nation a favor,” she quipped.

It was her Uncle Willie, physically disabled yet intellectually keen, who drilled Angelou on her times tables and also mentored local children, including one who went on to become Little Rock’s first black mayor.

“You have to see: Who is your balm?” said Angelou, “as you yourself are a balm to others.”

Angelou is Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, where the Center for Health Equity bears her name. She called herself “grateful for NIH” and its work to improve the health of all Americans.

“We call God by different names,” she said, “but I don’t have to wonder if I am my brother’s keeper.”

She then named courage “the most important virtue…because all other virtues spring from it.”

NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin presents Angelou with several gifts following her talk to a packed Masur Auditorium.
NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin presents Angelou with several gifts following her talk to a packed Masur Auditorium.

There is courage in remembering. As a young, single mother, Angelou struggled to support her son; she eventually toured Europe with a production of Porgy and Bess and joined Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater in New York.

In the 1960s, Angelou worked as an editor in Egypt and a teacher in Ghana, where she met Malcolm X and returned stateside to help him launch the Organization of African American Unity. That project broke up in 1965 when Malcolm X was assassinated. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then invited Angelou to serve in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1968, King, too, was assassinated.

Angelou had already written several plays, and now she took refuge in her writing. She was great friends with the late James Baldwin, who encouraged her, and in 1969 she published the first volume of her autobiography. The highly acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, about coming of age in the South, set a precedent. The black female voice was not shoved to the margins; it was central. Angelou has since received many honors and published many volumes of poetry, autobiography and plays; she recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.

Backstory on ‘The Balm’

Gilead, a mountainous region recounted in the Old Testament, is in present-day Jordan. In ancient times, Gilead was prized for its balsam (or balm), a gummy substance harvested from trees and shrubs to make medicine, incense and perfume. Today, products containing balsam are still in use: for example, balsalmic vinegar (for salad) and tincture of benzoin (for application to the skin).

There Is a Balm in Gilead, a traditional African-American spiritual, draws its central image from the Biblical book of Jeremiah (8:21-22): “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

The idea is that, even in the abundance of physical medicine, spiritual healing, both as an individual and as a people, requires something different.

The African-American spirituals were folk hymns created by enslaved African people in America. There Is a Balm in Gilead has survived as a song of healing and hope.

“Some of my balms are fictional,” she continued. “[The work of novelists] Thomas Wolfe, Virginia Woolf.”

Another balm is the ancient playwright Terence, whom she quoted in the original Latin: “Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a man [human] and nothing human is alien to me.”

Terence, she said, was taken from North Africa to ancient Rome, where he was enslaved and eventually freed.

And even though she’s living with “81-itis,” she exhorted the audience: “Defend yourself…But don’t complain. If you complain, you sour everybody’s day…But if you protest, you might get some help.”

At 16, she said, her heart’s desire was to work as an interpreter at the United Nations, then located in San Francisco. But when she glimpsed Eleanor Roosevelt and educator Mary McLeod Bethune entering the U.N. headquarters, Angelou’s dream seemed so far off that she wept. That teenaged girl couldn’t have known that one day she’d be asked to write a poem celebrating the U.N.’s 50-year anniversary.

Yet she did know to trust something in herself.

“Dare to love,” Angelou said, “and to let yourself be loved.”

In closing, she sang the refrain of Gilead—“to make the wounded whole.”

In appreciation, NCMHD director Dr. John Ruffin presented Angelou with keepsakes from her address to the 2008 NIH summit on eliminating health disparities: a commemorative book and a poster enlargement of NIH Record event coverage. NIHRecord Icon

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