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Austin Business and Entrepreneurial Academy students developed a greater knowledge of why the “caged bird sings” when they attended a speech by legendary poet Maya Angelou.

Angelou spoke at Faith Community of Saint Sabina and the South Side on March 19, as part of the church’s ongoing annual African American Speaking Series which has also hosted Princeton Professor Cornel West.

Diondai Brown-Whitfield, president of the Austin High School Alumni Association, organized the trip for the 15 students through her organization, Parents and Children with Asthma (PACA). The school paid for the trip.

The students were encouraged to write essays about the event and many of them, along with Brown-Whitfield, were deeply moved by it.

“This was a tremendous experience for myself and the students,” said Brown-Whitfield. “Dr. Angelou recited poetry and gave words of wisdom to the students, trying to focus on their education when there is the threat of violence around them.”

Just hours prior to Angelou’s appearance, there was an allegedly gang-related shooting mere blocks away from the church which resulted in four people being seriously wounded.

Angelou spoke about this and her relationship with one of the most famous shooting victims, rapper Tupac Shakur, whom she met on the set of the 1993 film Poetic Justice.

“Dr. Angelou said that when she first met Shakur she didn’t know who he was, she just saw this young man on the set who seemed upset,” said Brown-Whitfield.

“She said, ‘He was using expletives and clearly angry and I told him, don’t you know that you are loved? Don’t you know that there is nothing that you could be so upset about that cannot be solved through patience?’ She then said that Janet Jackson had then informed her of who he really was and Maya told Janet, ‘He seemed like he needed some love.'”

She also called for adults to show more patience with young people.

“It’s not about just parenting. Parents also must lend an ear and provide support for the children,” said Brown-Whitfield. “That’s what parents need to do to stem the tide of community violence likened to the one that occurred just prior to her entrance.”

Angelou did not deal strictly with the issue of violence. She also delivered a powerful rendition of one of her most beloved poems, “Still I Rise.”

“It was amazing,” said Brown-Whitfield. “When she repeated the phrase, ‘I rise, I rise,’ there was not a dry eye in the house. Everyone was applauding.”

“I’m, like, her biggest fan, and I really liked when she performed,” said Austin BEA senior Ronnica Harris, who is also a member of the school’s poetry club.

“When she said, ‘Why do parents treat children poorly but smile in a strangers face,’ I really understood where she was coming from.”

Marshante Mitchell also found the experience eye-opening.

“One of the things I want to deal with in my essay about the event was when she said that young African Americans should stop acting like we have always been free,” said Mitchell.

“She was basically saying that because we don’t remember the past, we don’t appreciate it like we should. That really struck a nerve with me.”