By Kenya Vaughn, Special to the NNPA from The St. Louis American –
An icon who transcends genres and traditions, Maya Angelou began her evening in St. Louis onstage discussing her early years – spent in the very city where she was presenting her sold-out conversation at the Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri.
She discussed the childhood trauma made famous through her best-selling book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was familiar territory, but there was something special about hearing it first-hand. She talked about being raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend and how that led her to refrain from verbal communication for several years. “The only person I told was my younger brother Bailey,” Angelou said – almost appearing to relive the conversation she had with him. “He said I had to tell him the name of the rapist,” she said. She told her nine-year-old brother, “He said if I told, he would kill you.” She said her brother told her, “I won’t let him kill me. So I told him, of course,” she said.
Her rapist ended up in jail. A few days later, he would be dead. Angelou felt responsible. If her words had the power to take a man’s life, she no longer wanted them. “I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill people, so I stopped speaking,” she said.
Frustrated with her daughter’s state as a post-traumatic mute, her mother sent her to live with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. How ironic that her words would make her an ambassador for self-empowerment and humanitarianism – and she would credit the very city that served as the setting for an act that could have ruined her life as a source of personal joy.
“I want you to know, St. Louis, that you are the rainbow in my clouds,” she said. She offered affirmation to her birthplace, as she discussed the events in her life. “Mama would sit me down on the floor the way old ladies still braid Black girls' hair in the South,” Angelou said. “Mama would bend her hand like that and put it behind my neck so she wouldn't break my neck by accident. She would say, ‘Sister, Momma don't care that you don't talk. Momma don't care that these people say you must be an idiot or a moron. Sister, Mama don't care. Sister, you know what? Mama know when you and the good Lord get ready you going to be a teacher – and you are going to teach all over the world.’” Angelou reflected, “I used to sit there and think, ‘This poor ignorant Mama.’ But here I sit, all these years at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, with more than 60 degrees.”
Her testimony alone was inspiring enough, but true to form the audience would leave the hour-long event with enough in their spirit to fuel a movement of gratitude, inspiration, and commitment to making the world a better place.
“When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in my cloud,” Angelou sang in a weathered voice. Minding her poetry business “I’m about the business of being a poet, and being a poet is no small matter,” Angelou said. “Estimates say there are 50 million Black people in the United States, and plenty say that is a modest number. Some say there are 50 million Black Baptists … and that’s not counting the backsliders, AME, CME, and the four Black atheists.”
Angelou said that it was her beloved art form – one that has become synonymous with her name – that served as the ultimate survival mechanism from 1619 until now.
“When you think about our experience, many people wonder, ‘How did they survive?’” Angelou said. “I believe that it was poetry.” She then recited mostly humorous excerpts from the Black experience and beyond to a delighted crowd. “‘My woman is chocolate and bad to the bone. And, every time she shakes, a skinny woman loses her home,’” Angelou recited. “And that was from the 19th century.”
She name-dropped greats such as James Weldon Johnson, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes, and Nikki Giovanni. “‘Where have you gone with your confident walk, your crooked smile, the rent money in one pocket and my heart in another,’” Angelou recited Mari Evans’ 1970 poem Where Have You Gone. “You need to know that someone was there before you, and poetry does that,” said Angelou.
Courage in the rainbow
“Courage is the most important of all of the virtues because you can’t practice any of the others with consistency without it,” Angelou said. “You have to have courage enough to say, ‘Yes, and so what.’ If in fact you have a chance to better your lives and someone else’s life, you are being courageous.”
She had the courage to move beyond her circumstances of racial inequality, childhood sex abuse, and being a teenage mother. Her courage began an ascent that led to greatness beyond measure. “You should be ashamed to die before you’ve done something magnificent for humankind,” Angelou said.
“Always rush to say yes to the good thing. And, then pray about it. My prayer for you tonight is that you look at yourself and see how blessed you are and you all remember the rainbow in your cloud. Who can say where your influence will reach?”