Radiating her trademark warmth, poet Maya Angelou filled the Louis Alexander Palestra with words of inspiration on Tuesday night. Speaking to a crowd of 1,600 UR students, staff and community members, Angelou used her past experiences to impart a valuable life lesson.
“When it looked like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore,” she sang, “God put a rainbow in the clouds.”
Taken from a 19th-century African American poem, these lyrics became the core of Angelou’s speech.
“I mean to put it on your minds that each of us has this possibility of being a rainbow in somebody’s cloud,” she said. “It’s amazing. Just amazing.”
Angelou’s talk was rescheduled from an earlier date, but she said she never thought about canceling. “In this place you can lay your burden down – the burden of ignorance, the burden of racism, the burden of ageism, the burden of sexism,” Angelou said, speaking of the university environment.
“The truth is that it has been created so each of you can become a rainbow in the clouds for those to come,” she continued. “If you think of it that way, it makes your lessons, your homework, a little less tedious.”
Angelou’s rainbows came early in her life – in the form of her uncle and grandmother. It was her grandmother who taught her to read and write and her Uncle Willie who taught her the multiplication tables.
What Angelou didn’t realize is that her uncle, who rarely left his hometown of Stamps, Arkansas, had a far-reaching effect on the lives of others, as well. He also taught a young man whose mother was blind.
Years later, when Angelou traveled to Arkansas to make arrangements after her uncle’s death, she met the young man – then the first black mayor of Little Rock. The mayor, in turn, had helped another young man who grew up to become a state legislator. “When we stop to think about it, each of us has had a Willie in our lives,” Angelou said. “Maybe two or three.”
After being raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was just eight years old, Angelou stopped talking to everyone but her brother. Though other family members called her stupid, her grandmother never gave up on her. Every night, as she braided Angelou’s hair, her grandmother promised her that she would one day be a great teacher.
Angelou laughed at the time, but now has 55 doctorates, speaks several languages and teaches all over the world. “I don’t say that to brag about me but really about a rainbow in the cloud,” she said. “How could my grandmother know that what I needed from her was that light to shine on me?”
Soon, Angelou began reading and memorizing poetry. One day she sat under the porch and tried speaking it aloud – she found that she still had a voice.
Angelou has devoted that voice to spreading her message ever since. “Each one of us has the possibility, the privilege, to leave rainbows in the clouds,” she said.
Angelou has certainly lived what she preaches. Her words touched many in the audience. “She’s a phenomenal woman,” UR Human Resources Representative Dawn Phillips said. “Her talk was incredibly inspirational.”
Rochester resident Sheila Myricks-Crawford agreed. “I loved it,” she said. “Everyone should try and be a rainbow for someone else.”
Senior Ryan Montgomery felt that Angelou’s words are universally meaningful. “I thought Dr. Angelou’s talk was very insightful,” he said. “It is definitely applicable to UR because it relates to everyone.”
Angelou would probably agree. “It seems to be so clear for the young men and women to comprehend,” she said. “This is why you’re here, why the institution was established so you can indeed fulfill your destiny, complete your charge of becoming a rainbow for someone to come.”
Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.