Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Maya Angelou inspires others to be rainbows
By Rebecca Wyatt, OU Web Writer
Maya Angelou doesn’t fly anymore…at least commercially, anyway. She doesn’t mind being approached by strangers in the airport, but after a pilot left the controls of an air plane to talk to her, she got a bus and now travels the country by luxury coach. On Oct. 2, her coach brought her to Oakland University where the 78-year-old poet, actress and author spoke of the people who inspired her and encouraged the university community to inspire others.
Sponsored by the Student Life Lecture Board, this was Angelou’s third visit to OU; the last was nearly 16 years ago.
“When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put up a rainbow in the clouds,” Angelou sang, beginning a lecture that included anecdotes and poetry.
“This university, as you know, is a rainbow in the clouds. There are many young men and women who have entered this university who represent the first time their family has ever entered an institution of higher education,” Angelou said.
According to Angelou, it’s the work of the “heroes and sheroes” that came before that helped everyone get where they are today.
“You are here because you’ve already been paid for. Someone has been a rainbow in the clouds for you whether you know it or not,” Angelou said. “All you really have to do is prepare yourselves so you can pay for someone who will come down the road.”
Nearly 70 years ago, Angelou’s parents were going through a divorce. Along with her brother Bailey, Angelou moved to Arkansas to live with her paternal grandmother and her uncle, Willie. They became her rainbows.
Her grandmother and uncle had the only black-owned store in the area and needed Maya’s and Bailey’s help. Her grandmother taught her to read and write and her uncle taught her math. He would grab her by the neck, hold her up to a potbelly stove and ask her to recite her multiplication tables. Angelou knows now that he wouldn’t have hurt a fly, but her Uncle Willie was her rainbow. He helped her to attain more than she thought she could.
Uncle Willie later became the subject of a song Angelou wrote for Roberta Flack.
Sometime later, Angelou and her brother were taken to St. Louis to live with their mother and her family. Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. After spending one day and one night in jail, the boyfriend was released. A few days later the police came to her home and said the rapist had been found dead.
“They told my mother’s mother the man had been found dead. It seemed he had been kicked to death. I thought my voice had killed him so I stopped speaking,” said Angelou.
After her mother’s family was unable to get her to speak, they sent her to Arkansas again to live with her paternal grandmother. Her grandmother told her that one day, she’d be a teacher — and she has taught English, French and Spanish in a number of institutions. She attributes her success in the languages to reading so much as a mute. Her teacher, Mrs. Flowers, had her read many books and would quiz her on the content. For six years, Angelou did not speak.
Through the reading, through her family and through her personal growth, Angelou found her rainbow.
“You need to know someone was there before you. Someone has survived and done better than that — thrived with some passion, compassion, humor and style,” said Angelou. “I want you to know that. That someone has been there before you so that you can step up a few more steps. You are not alone.”
Angelou encouraged the audience to develop courage, for without it, she said none of the other virtues of life will fall into place.