“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.” Maya Angelou
In a large auditorium, with several thousand people in attendance, Maya Angelou made me feel like she had pulled up a chair just to chat with me. Her words resonated deeply in my heart, bringing goodness and truth from her own life into mine. Now over 80 years of age, and but a shadow of her former “larger-than-life” self, Maya still holds an audience in the palm of her hand. I had the enormous privilege of hearing her speak recently at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Maya had to be assisted on and off the stage; her dark glasses shielding her eyes, but the joy, courage, wisdom, and charisma that radiated from her was life-giving.
Maya began the night by singing. “When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine no more…God put a rainbow in the clouds.” She shared her belief that, as it was in the book of Genesis, a rainbow is a sign of Light and Hope. She encouraged each of us to see the rainbows in our lives and BE one for others. Identify the “heroes and she-roes” in your life, she encouraged, and let your gratitude for your life proceed you. “I am thankful for my life” she said.
This statement took on even greater meaning as she shared that when she was a girl, her parents split up, leaving her and her older brother in the care of their grandparents. They were shipped between Arkansas and Missouri, spending time with each side of the family. When Maya was 7, she was in the company of her mother’s boyfriend. Tragically, this boyfriend raped her. She reluctantly told her brother who reported this to adults. The man who abused her was put in jail for one night. After his release, he was found dead – apparently having been beaten to death. In her young mind, Maya was convinced, “I believed that my voice had killed him” she said. As a result, she remained silent for the next 6 years. She spoke to no one, only whispering to her brother in private on occasion. This event “tried to silence me,” she recalled.
For 6 years, Maya said she became something like a “giant ear,” taking in the world as a focused listener. Poetry and literature were her steadfast friends. She read and memorized Shakespeare, Poe, and other great classics which she quoted to us from memory. Her grandmother would talk to her as she braided her hair, “’Mama don’t care about what these people say about you that you must be an idiot or a moron because you can’t talk. Mama know when you and the good Lord get ready, Sister, you gon’ be a teacher. You gon’ teach all over this world.’” And so it has been.
Maya publically broke her silence in order to recite a work for a church literary program at the age of 13. She said she was seduced into speaking by a teacher who knew her love of literature. Her teacher said, “You will never truly love it until it crosses your teeth. You have to speak it.” Out of silence, Maya has risen to become one of the most influential voices of our time.
Her grandmother was right too. Maya has also taught all over the world, lecturing her students in French, Spanish, and English. She has mastered 5 different languages, written poetry and prose, acted on stage and screen, danced professionally, recorded an album, and inspired millions.
Dr. Angelou has lived and worked abroad. She was also a civil rights activist alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. She was asked to write the Inaugural poem for Bill Clinton and a poem for the world by the United Nations. The list of her accomplishments is staggering; however, I couldn’t help but feel that her greatest accomplishment is that she has managed time and time again to overcome difficulty and discouragement. You have the distinct feeling that she is nothing less than the Phoenix who again and again rises from the ashes. Her poem, Still I Rise is believable because you feel the power of a woman, tried by fire, who still stands.
Maya reminded us that someone was here before us, hurt before us, thrived before us and survived before us. We must be thankful to these forefathers because they have been rainbows in our clouds. She spoke with heart, “You need the belief that you are a rainbow and that you can be so for someone else.” And so the cycle of goodness continues…
Maya has become a rainbow for me. Her steadfast overcoming spirit has become a Light and a source of Hope for me. She makes me believe I can rise. Watch the following video clip and see if her saucy full-of-life way does not capture you. Start to look for your own rainbows. Be inspired and soak in the goodness of the people that shine in your life. Then become a rainbow for someone else. This is our destiny – to beget Goodness from person to person, soul to soul, generation to generation!