Maya Angelou sat comfortably in a gold armchair at the Sun Dome on Monday night as she told a story of people finding their inspiration, empowering them to change racism and sexism. She began telling her story by singing a folk song from the 19th century about rainbows as a symbol of hope and inspiration.
“I am here tonight to tell you about the rainbows in my clouds,” she said. “This institution is a rainbow … you students are all potential rainbows – I see you and I know it.”
Her entrance was met with a standing ovation, and her presence proved to be a source of joy for the crowd, as many things she said throughout the night elicited claps and cheers from the audience. More than 5,000 people filled the Sun Dome and eagerly listened to Angelou’s biographical tales and stories about overcoming hardships as part of the University Lecture Series’ spring lineup.
Monday’s 5,100-person crowd set an all-time attendance record for the program, which began in 1986.
Angelou is arguably one of the best-known living female authors of the 21st century and has dealt with the social repercussions of being black, being a woman and having a gift for words. Angelou, who was born fewer than 20 years after women’s suffrage went into effect, had humble beginnings but rose to become a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet.
She spoke of her family as one of her greatest “rainbows,” amusing the crowd with tales of her uncle, who she said held her up by the clothes around her neck above a stove and made her learn her multiplication tables. “He would say, tell me the fourses, tell me the sixes, tell me the tenses, and I would,” she said.
Her uncle, W.M. Johnson, or Uncle Willie, would go on to teach the same lessons to one of the South’s first black mayors, Charles Bussey (Little Rock, Ark.). Angelou gave the audience the story of her uncle as an example of the impact that one person can have on generations of people. Her uncle had influenced one person, who in turn influenced another, who in turn influenced another, she said.
“I did not realize how bright his light was,” Angelou said. “You see when you place a light in the clouds, chances are, it will shine through.”
Her own childhood involves strained relations with adults and the goodness and innocence of children. When she was 7 years old and living in St. Louis, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She told her brother about the incident and word made it to the police, who imprisoned him for “a day and a night.” Shortly thereafter, St. Louis police officers came to her maternal grandmother’s home because the man had been beaten to death. The crowd gasped as Angelou told them how she had remained silent for six years in fear that it was the power of her words that had killed the man.
At 13, Angelou overcame her fear and chose to recite poetry at her church as a statement of her regained power. She named some of her favorite poets – Edna St. Vincent Millay, P.L. Dunbar, Anne Spencer and WIlliam Shakespeare – as having inspired her to not only read but also to write more.
“I said to myself, Shakespeare must have been a black, barefoot girl in the South who was abused, because how else could he understand me so well?”
Angelou tries to cross the boundaries of gender and race with her writing to speak out to people around the world, giving them the voice that she had gained through poetry.
Empowerment was another theme of Angelou’s speech. Angelou called upon the crowd to “to help us eradicate this blight of racism and sexism, which cripples us.” Her words rang out through the auditorium as many clapped and cheered in approval of her statement.
The National Book Award nominee, who left amid a standing ovation, closed with the words: “When each of us says, ‘I have the power and privilege to become somebody’s rainbow,’ then things will change.”