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Angelou Urges Audience to Look for Rainbows in Their Clouds

By Ioana Patringenaru | May 6, 2006

Maya Angelou
A summer reading list from Maya Angelou.
During her talk, Angelou recommended many poets, including: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Anne Spencer,
Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes.

At age seven, Maya Angelou became a victim of rape. At age 16, she became an unwed mother. Six decades later, she has become a phenomenally successful writer, with 12 best-selling books to her name.

How did this teenage mother not only survive, but also thrive? Saturday night, Angelou shared at least one of the secrets of her success with thousands at the RIMAC arena. She said she endured because of what she calls “rainbows” in her life: men, women, works of art and ideas that gave her hope and courage throughout her life.

“Each one of us is here because we have rainbows in our lives,” she said.

During an hour-long talk, Angelou took her audience on a tour of her childhood, her best-selling prose and poetry and her favorite authors. Through it all, she kept coming back to the people and things that have been rainbows in her life.

They include her paternal grandmother and her uncle, she said. She met them at age 3, after her parents’ divorce, when a long cross-country train journey took her and her brother to rural Arkansas. She soon started calling her grandmother “momma.” Her grandmother told Angelou she would become a teacher but the little girl didn’t believe her. The old woman who owned a store in a small Arkansas town turned out to be right. Angelou has received awards from many universities, including Yale, and has collected scores of honorary degrees. She holds a lifetime appointment as professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“On the face of it, it seems that I’m bragging,” Angelou told her audience. “But I’m saying this will happen if you have a rainbow in your life. You’re lifted up and out and you are liberated.”

In her life, poetry itself has sometimes been a rainbow, she said. She urged her audience to go to the library and look up 19th and 20th-century black poets.

“I want you to know that there’s a world of difference between being trained and being educated,” she said.

Angelou recited works by some of her favorite authors, included Paul Lawrence Dunbar. One of his poems, entitled “Sympathy,” was the inspiration for the title of two Angelou works: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “A Song Flung up to Heaven.”

Poetry is for everyone, Angelou also said. It can be a source of comfort in everyday  life, she said. To illustrate this point, she then told a story from her own life. Her son, Guy Johnson, called her 10 days after undergoing a grueling spinal cord surgery. Did she remember “Invictus,” a poem by William Ernest Henley, he asked. She did. Would she recite it for him? She did. Could they recite it together? She did that too. Finally, he told his mother doctors had just finished removing 100 stitches from his back.

Poetry also came to rescue at a difficult time in Angelou’s life, when she had stopped speaking after being raped. She had memorized every work she could find in her segregated school, she said. But when she was about 13, a black woman told her that she didn’t really love poetry.

“She said you’ll never love it until you speak it,” Angelou recalled.

Six months later, Angelou said she found her voice again by reciting poems, hidden under her grandmother’s house.

Angelou ended her talk with a last anecdote. She was 16 and pregnant in San Francisco when the United Nations was founded, she said. She read stories about how much money U.N. translators made. She knew she had a gift for languages, but she also knew her station in life kept her from reaping its rewards, she said. Fifty years later, after reading one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Angelou was invited to read a poem at United Nation’s 50th anniversary.

“Can you imagine what I felt,” she asked her audience. “What I thought then, and think now, is how blessed I was, how blessed I’ve been, to have rainbows in my life.”

Angelou’s performance earned a standing ovation from the audience. 

“She seems like she is a really happy person, even though she has a lot of sad things to say,” said Pam Grewal, a scientist and San Diego resident.

Laura Askew, an assistant manager at Target who likes poetry, said she had come to listen to her idol and wasn’t disappointed.

 “She’s just a tremendous influence in my life,” Askew said.

Spencer Pforsich, an English teacher and 2005 UCSD alumnus, said he found a source of inspiration in Angelou’s talk. He is teaching poetry to10th-graders and found plenty of good ideas he could bring back to the classroom, he said. Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” is one of his favorite poems, he said.

“She was so gracious,” he said.

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