More than 2,000 Howard University students graduated yesterday in exercises stressing their responsibilities for the future and their debts to those striving blacks who went before them.

Baking under a warm sun in black robes and mortar boards, the students basked in their academic achievement as they listened to graduation speaker Maya Angelou's sobering words, "Your ancestors took the lash, the branding irons, humiliation and oppression because one day they believed . . . you would come along to flesh out the dream."

The amplified voice of university President James E. Cheek rang across the Howard University stadium, where about 18,000 people witnessed the three-hour ceremony. In addition to the awarding of undergraduate and graduate degrees, seven individuals, including Washington TV newswoman J.C. Hayward, received honorary degrees.

Onlookers ringed the stadium and filled the seats on the field, surrounding the students, for whom it was a singular day of rituals. There was even royalty on hand -- in the person of Queen 'M'amohato Bereng Seeiso of Lesotho, an African nation that had two citizens among yesterday's graduates.

"It's something you never think is really going to happen, and then it happens," said Karyn Collins, a 21-year-old Chicago woman who earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism. "I keep thinking somebody is going to put some fast one over on me and tell me I need three credits at the last minute."

There were no fast ones, though, and as Cheek conferred degrees orally on the students in each of the university's schools and colleges, they cheered, shook hands and released balloons into the air.

"You have been loved," intoned Angelou, a writer and American studies professor at Wake Forest University, whose rich voice carried theatrically to the fringes of the crowd. Angelou, who received an honorary doctor of letters degree, told the graduates their achievement rests on the efforts of activists and ancestors who preceded them.

Referring to writer James Baldwin's observation that "we have all been paid for," she said graduates should feel obligated to paying for -- to laying the groundwork for -- future generations.

Citing as an example "the 14-year-old girl who prepares now to go to 14th Street and lose herself," she said, "you have started paying for her now."

Angelou, whose first autobiographical volume, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," won her fame, urged the graduates to turn their attentions to the oppressed, the hungry and the poor in Latin America and South Africa, and to end the "erosive social cancer of racism" in this country.