Maya Angelou Visits Augusta Civic Center
The Student Government Association of the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA), in considering whom to bring as a speaker, unanimously settled upon Maya Angelou, a person with far-reaching influence. Her accomplishments are varied and many. To list them would risk missing something of this phenomenal woman's life. Suffice it to say, she is a "global renaissance woman," as UMA President introduced said in her introduction. Angelou spoke Monday, April 26, at the Augusta Civic Center to an audience of 5,000. The mayor of Augusta made a point of saying the last person who attracted this many people in the central Maine community was Elvis Presley.
The evening began, aptly, with a reading of some of Angelou's poetry by students at UMA and the president of the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
When the 82-year-old woman came up on stage, the packed crowd gave her a standing ovation. As she sat down to deliver her lecture, she was fiery, sassy, humorous, poetic and inspiring. The program notes that quoted her set the timbre of the emotionally vibrant evening: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
She began, in her low, gravelly voice, by singing a few lines from a slave song, an "African poet, probably a woman" wrote in the nineteenth century: "When it looks like the sun won't shine no more, I will be a rainbow in somebody's clouds." Angelou explained that this reference came from Genesis, in which God showed, as a sign of the covenant after the flood, a rainbow, a promise to protect the Earth: "I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth" (Genesis 9:15-16).
This "rainbow in the clouds" was the central poetic conceit of Angelou's lecture, which was about the importance of having mentors in one's life and of sharing one's knowledge and love. She began by telling the story of her grandmother, Annie Henderson, who raised Angelou and her brother. As a child, Angelou and her brother crossed from Los Angeles to Stamps, Ark. by train as unaccompanied minors. "I can't believe we actually arrived!" Angelou joked. Henderson had the only store owned by a black person in the town. She started by selling meat pies to the industrial workers every day for years, regardless of the conditions. With the store, Angelou said, "she let the men run into her."
She also spoke of her Uncle Willie as a rainbow. He was crippled but taught Angelou her multiplication tables and had a far-reaching influence in the community. When she came back to Stamps for her uncle's funeral, she stopped en route in Little Rock. There, the Mayor of Little Rock - among the first black politicians to hold a major office - told her that Uncle Willie had given him a chance to get educated. "He made me love to learn, he made me." It turns out that the Mayor passed this chance along to a lawyer in Kentucky who helped Angelou with some legal work regarding Grandma's store.
Recently, Angelou met the grandson of this same lawyer, who now represents Arkansas in the Congress. Of Uncle Willie, Angelou said, "I had no idea of the power of his presence." This is the importance of rainbows to Angelou: they give "the possibility of seeing hope" in the worst of times, and their power stretches.
"We have a responsibility of changing the world," Angelou said, and that might mean groundbreaking change or coming back to your community and inspiring someone. She stressed the importance of this for UMA students, saying, "You're in this institution so you can liberate the world, not just for its benefit, but from your ignorance."
Angelou ended her lecture by encouraging everyone to bring poetry into their lives, saying, "Somebody was here before you, lonely before, couldn't find a job before you, yet survived with passion, compassion, humor, fashion and style."
In her time writing poetry, Angelou wrote a poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations (UN), a "poem for the world." She recalls, at the inception of the UN, standing at the UN plaza in San Francisco crying violently, unable to go in because she was black, unwed, pregnant and uneducated. Imagine, 50 years later, being asked to write a poem celebrating the world, being invited into the UN and being asked to deliver her poem before the major heads of states. This success, she said was "only because I had rainbows in my clouds."