Blending poetry with song, Maya Angelou -poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director – gave graduating seniors some words of wisdom during the first-ever Graduate Convocation. Angelou painted the image of rainbows in the clouds – the people who quietly influence our lives, causing a domino effect of good deeds and success – for the audience with her rhythmic words and life experiences, and a little bit of humor.
“If you’re serious, you can’t make a difference,” Angelou says.
It didn’t matter whether people in the audience were familiar with Angelou’s work. She mesmerized everyone who listened.
Angelou said her grandmother was one of the brightest rainbows in her life, always telling Angelou she was meant to inspire.
“My ‘momma,’ with her fifth-grade education, told me I’d be a teacher one day,” Angelou said. “And look at me now.”
Angelou has earned 56 honorary doctorate degrees and was awarded a lifetime membership to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002. She has also authored 12 best-selling books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
“She takes the young generation back to the old school and comes right back into the present,” says Dinah Berry, events coordinator at the UM RSMAS campus. “She’s right up there with Oprah Winfrey and other inspirational women of our time.”
Another of Angelou’s rainbows: Uncle Willy, who affected her and many others, including the first black mayor of Little Rock, Ark. According to Angelou, Uncle Willy gave them all a chance to succeed and taught them their “times-tables.” Angelou even wrote a song for Roberta Flack about her Uncle Willy.
“She takes the young generation back to the old school…
She’s right up there with Oprah Winfrey and other inspirational women of our time.” -Dinah berry, RSMAS event coordinator
Angelou traveled to Miami all the way from Winston-Salem, N.C., on a bus; she said she stopped flying about seven years ago because of the craziness she faced at airports.
“People would poke me and pull on my clothes. They would give me their babies,” she said. “I came all the way down here on a bus, so when I say I’m happy to be here, I mean it.”
One of Angelou’s proudest moments: being invited to write and deliver a poem at the UN’s 50th anniversary.
“I remember thinking as a little girl in 1945 that if I wasn’t this, and I wasn’t that, I could go into the UN building,” Angelou says. “And there I was, preparing a poem to read in that very building.”
She also recalled a time when a woman came up to her and thanked her for saving her daughter’s life, giving her a letter written by her daughter, vowing to never attempt suicide again. Angelou took the letter home, opened it and cried at the contents – aside from the vow, it described Angelou’s facial features as monstrous and frightening.
“It broke my heart, it was so full of racism and ignorance,” Angelou says. “I almost thought about killing myself just like that girl.”
Angelou left the audience – especially graduating seniors – with words that will echo in their hearts as they pick up their diplomas and move off into whatever awaits.
“You are all the dreamers of UM who dare to keep a rainbow in the clouds.”
Jorge Arauz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org