Maya Angelou describes ‘the rainbows in my clouds’ in Clarion event

CLARION — Dr. Brenda Dede, vice-president of Academic Affairs at Clarion University, said Wednesday evening’s speaker could be described by many adjectives.

She’s an author, a poet, a dancer and a Civil Rights activist — and Wednesday, Dr. Maya Angelou graced the stage of the Marwick-Boyd Theater on Clarion University’s campus, to an auditorium of 3,000 people.

“I’m here, and I’ve come to say something,” Angelou said. “And I won’t leave until I say it.”

Angelou visited the university as part of its Mary L. Seifert Cultural Series, which served as the kickoff event for discussions on the “Realities of Race,” the theme of the series.

“Somebody will find a way to obliterate the reality of racism, which is a blight in our country; she may be in the fifth row,” she said.
“Somebody will help us to be better neighbors in South America; he may be in the ninth row. Somebody’s going to do it.”

Angelou said she planned to use poetry — her own, and the work of poets she memorized as a child — in the evening’s conversation, because poetry is “the rainbow in the clouds,” she said.

“It has been for many people who don’t know that that has been their rainbow,” she said.

Angelou said one of her first rainbows in the cloud was when her mother told her she was going to be a teacher, and that she was going to teach all over the world.

“Now, I teach, all over,” she said. “It would seem, on the face of it, that I’m bragging. The truth is, if I’m bragging at all, I’m bragging about the people who have been rainbows in my clouds — some who had no formal education at all. Some who were doctors. Some who were white, some who were black. Some fat ones and thin ones. Some gay and straight ones. I’ve had rainbows in my clouds, and I’m thankful.”

Angelou said she started learning and memorizing poetry around the age of eight — the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare — but was told that until she learned to “speak it,” she would never love poetry.

“I tried to speak the poetry I had memorized,” she said. “I had found my voice had not left me. And I’ve been speaking ever since and using poetry.”

Angelou encouraged the young men and women in the audience to visit the university’s library, and ask the librarian for poetry.

“Say ... I probably need to know a couple of sonnets of Shakespeare,” she said. “I need some African-American poetry, and some white American poetry, and some women’s poetry and men’s poetry. I need it, so I can obliterate myself from my ignorance.”

Another piece of advice Angelou offered is that “a cheerful spirit is good medicine.”

“Laughter helps to heal us,” she said. “And also, be careful when you don’t love yourself. I never trust people who say, ‘I don’t love myself, but I love you.’ There’s an African saying that says, ‘Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.’”

Angelou recited many works from well-known poets, including a sonnet of Shakespeare, “Sympathy,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar and “I Shall Die, But That is All I Shall Do for Death,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She said poems like these can be helpful, and she encouraged the students to memorize them.

“It will help, as my grandmother would say, ‘Put some starch in your backbone,’” Angelou said.

Angelou recalled a reading of “The Raven” she heard in Los Angeles when she was around 14 years old.

At the time, she thought the reader, Gregory Peck, got the reading all wrong.

“I knew ‘The Raven,’ I had never heard it recited, but because of the internal rhymes and rhythms, I thought it sounded just like the hip hop songs of today,” she said.

And that was not the way Peck recited it.

But Angelou learned, poetry belongs to each person in his or her own way.
“Whoever the poet was, and whatever she wrote, is for you, here, today, in May, in 2012,” she said. “It’s for you.”

Although Angelou gave birth to only one child, a son, she said she has many children of many persuasions.

But one of her son’s favorite poems — “Invictus” — came to him at a time when he was undergoing numerous surgeries: A time when he needed it the most.

“I’m certain that (William Ernest) Henley never thought, when he was writing that poem, that it would come in for the absolute benefit of a young black man in Miami, Fla., but he wrote for him,” Angelou said. “You must know that all of it was written for you. Every book in your library was written for you, so that you can stand erect. So that you can stand on your own two feet. So that you can be independent. Independent of ignorance. Dependent upon each other and independent of ignorance.”

To end her presentation, Angelou left the audience with the words of one of her famous poems.

“But still, like dust, I rise,” she said, closing the night to a standing ovation.