By Liz Bowen
Published: October 30, 2008
All she needed was a red carpet. As Maya Angelou stepped out from behind the curtains of Pace University’s Schimmel Theater on Oct. 10, a deluge of light seemed to flood the hall; eyes lit up and cameras flashed. Sporting a glittering, floor-length, topaz evening gown and a thin, black cane, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet made her way to the center of the stage. At 80 years old, the beaming Dr. Angelou’s smile radiated throughout the auditorium, resting on the faces of the audience members, many of whom were a quarter of her age.
“When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore,” Angelou’s raspy voice rose up through the theater, her first words a line from a 19th-century spiritual, “God put a rainbow in the clouds.” The short tune would carry throughout the hour she spent onstage in commemoration of the new illustrated book “Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration,” published by Doubleday. The biographical tribute, released in April, was authored by one of Angelou’s nieces and two close friends: Marcia Ann Gillespie, Rosa Johnson Butler and Richard A. Long, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey. The heartening theme of Angelou’s opening song resurfaced again and again as she recounted seemingly disconnected snippets of her life. “In the most threatening of times,” she said, “you can see a possibility of hope.”
The first of these snippets, and perhaps the most resounding, was the legacy of her Uncle Willy, the poor and disabled, yet intelligent, man who made her memorize her multiplication tables—such was the simple way she viewed him during her childhood. Some time into her career, the mayor of Little Rock, Ark., one of the first black mayors in the country, sought her out to tell her that he was only so successful because her Uncle Willy had encouraged him to get an education. Years later, she met a member of another state’s legislature who attributed his success to the Little Rock mayor’s hand in ensuring his education. Even later, she met members of that legislator’s family who, with his guidance, had, too, become involved in government leadership. Of her Uncle Willy’s anchoring position in this chain and of the power of just one person’s good example, Angelou said, “How can we know how far his influence goes?”
Known worldwide for her revolutionary work for racial equality and human rights, Angelou touched on the subject of race several times without straying from her main message of the need for good influence. In a plea to minority groups to avoid succumbing to harmful social norms—including those within their own groups—she said, “The decision to call your hair ‘nappy’ was made by someone who doesn’t care about you.” Similarly, she begged minorities not to use racial slurs to refer to themselves, despite the common conception that they are empowered by doing so. Almost mournfully, she cautioned, “Words are things. Be careful.”
On the topic of words, Angelou was particularly passionate. She recited a number of poems from memory, including some she memorized as a young girl. After having been sexually abused at the age of seven, she refused to speak for six years, during which she memorized 60 sonnets and 50 other poems. She mentioned specific affections for William Shakespeare, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Edgar Allen Poe. “Shakespeare was a black girl in the south who’d been molested,” she said, illustrating her deep connection to the words she loved so much. In addition to her recitations of two Dunbar pieces and one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she read several of her own works, including a song for her Uncle Willy and “Brave and Startling Truth,” the poem she was asked to write for the United Nations’ 50th Anniversary.
Though the talk was saturated with pressing issues and hard-hitting lessons, Angelou kept a consistently positive atmosphere in the auditorium, peppering heavy topics with endearing impersonations and caustic humor. While she had no qualms about admonishing the violent and bleak state in which she finds the world to exist today, her main message was one of hope. The solution will come, she said, ending the night with a smile, “when each of us can say, ‘Yes, I can be, and will be, a rainbow in somebody’s cloud.’”
For those who missed out on the eclectic reading, Angelou will be speaking in the city once again at the Union Square Barnes and Noble at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30.