Maya Angelou Paints a Rainbow

Jasmine Lamumba escorts Maya
Angelou on stage. (photo KM)
You know you're in the hands of a story teller when Maya Angelou steps on stage. "I thought I'd wear some pink and red," said this famous poet, actress, playwright, director, producer, and activist, "to lift us up."

And lift us up she did.

She can be generous, sultry, sensual, and mischievous by turns. At seventy-one, her voice is still textured—sounding cool as shade, deep as thunder, soft as cotton, or bright as sun.

"I had a wonderful time when I was here before," she joked, "and then, years passed, when you invited other people. I'm not holding that against you. I'm just saying I noticed."

So she draws us in with a laugh, while painting a rainbow theme she carried throughout, in myriad colors, to a sold-out Laxson crowd.

In the dark times, clouds can so lower, and lower, said Angelou, pronouncing it louwer, in her poet's drawl, that we cannot see the light. To reassure us, she explained, God put the rainbow in the sky.

"So that even in the worst, dreariest, leanest, cruelest times, the viewer can see a ray of hope."

Her own rays of hope are African American poems, spirituals, blues songs, and people from her amazing life.

"We rise, and we rise," she said, "because we've had rainbows. A friend, a stranger, a family member who captured for us the nobleness of the human spirit."

Angelou read poems by nineteenth century African American Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)—her favorite poet for that moment. Dunbar was the source of the title of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In Dunbar's poem, the bird beats its breast against the bars of the cage and "blood still flows through old, old scars." The caged bird sings, Angelou explains, not in joy, but as a plea for release.

What saves people from the darkest times, again, is other people, especially people who laugh. "I never trust people who don't," she warned. "Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."

Instead, Angelou advocated self-love and humor, especially in poetry. "And when I can't find it quickly enough, I write it myself," she added.

Her own "bit of doggerel" on self-love is about hating to lose something—in one case a doll, then a watch. And if she can feel this protective about a doll or a watch, she warns, "So what do you think I feel about my lover boy?"

Behind this humor lies another story,—and a long history. Angelou talked about the African American term "to signify," which means to imply someone is a fool. But you have to signify correctly, "or you can get dead." You have to do it pointedly, yet obliquely.

Which is also the art of story itself, to hook listeners, surround them, and draw them subtly in. At this Angelou is a master. As when she held the audience rapt with her tale of Uncle Willie.

When she was small, her Uncle Willie cajoled her to learn her times tables so thoroughly that Angelou was convinced any backsliding would send her right into the pot-bellied stove.

When he demanded, "Sister, do your foursies," she did her foursies. She learned her times tables "exquisitely." Even today, she jokes, if you were to wake her at three a.m. after several "libations," she'd recite them exquisitely.

Maya Angelou gives advice: "Be careful
when a naked man offers you his shirt
and donít trust anyone who canít
laugh!" (photo km)
Angelou still loves and respects the crippled man whom she and her brother used to hide in a vegtable bin when the "white boys" came riding, lest he be tortured and killed. And the tender hearted Willie "became a rainbow in my cloud," which she now honors in eloquent verse:

Ask for me and you will see/

that I am present in the songs that children sing./I am the rhyme,/ask for me, call me, crippled Willie.

Poetry is Angelou's great public strength: her love of words and her gift of them. But this wasn't always true.

Through the ages of eight to thirteen, Angelou was mute. "My voice didn't leave me, I left my voice, and when I returned, it was because of poetry."

This return came, "in a rush of sound," after being told she couldn't possibly love poetry until she spoke it.

"And when I spoke it, I began to hear it." So she memorized in reams the writing she loved. "Edgar Allen Poe and Shake-speare, thirty sonnets all lined up in a row." All the while she listened to the voices around her, of poor Arkansas whites and blacks.

Soon it was as her grandmother predicted, "Poetry put starch in my backbone."

"I had no idea of the power of poetry." She described one particularly harrowing performance before an audience of 4,500 in the Mid-East, when she grew tongue-tied when asked to sing.

But following in her grand-mother's footsteps, who in church"sang to rattle the walls," she drew herself up and offered her grandmother's spiritual, a "story song" not written, but created, by enslaved African Americans. "And four thousand five hundred people jumped up to identify," Angelou remembered. "And I was saved."

Angelou urged that we, too, seek out this Black poetry that can reach across continents, saying, "You need to know somebody's been there before you." And we need to remember that, like Angelou herself, "they miraculously survived, with humor and style."

"This is why I say poetry is a rainbow," she added. "In the darkest and dreariest of times, there should be something you can rely on."

If poems are word rainbows, then Angelou's words are a rainbow of poems, and she has become one herself, through poetry.

And, as promised, she has lifted us up.


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