Angelou challenges audience to make a difference

If you think you spotted a rainbow over Alumni Hall last night, you probably did. Like a rainbow, Maya Angelou brought words of inspiration to The University of Western Ontario.

The iconic 83-year-old Missouri-born poet, author, educator and civil rights activist drew from her life experience – and life’s work – in an hour-long conversation which began and ended with standing ovations from a capacity crowd of more than 2,000.

“Each of you can be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud,” she told the audience, drawing from her bestseller, Letter to My Daughter.

Presented by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Students’ Council and the University Students’ Council, Angelou remained seated, speaking without notes from the centre of the stage while flanked by video screens.

Angelou counts everyone from U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to country music act Brooks and Dunn among those she has worked with and inspired. But her life did not start as an inspiration.

When her parents divorced, she and her brother were sent alone on a train to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. At 8 years old, she was raped and for five years she spoke to no one but her brother, writing notes to communicate with others.

Taught to read by her grandmother, Angelou found a voice in poetry and the works of William Shakespeare.

“I thought Shakespeare was probably a black girl,” she said. “This man actually knew what it was like to be a black girl who was molested.”

A single mom who finished her final days of high school just weeks before giving birth, Angelou rebounded with a passion for reading, a gift for writing and an ability to learn languages. (She speaks six, including the West African language of Fanti).

She’s worked as a streetcar conductor, waitress, dance instructor, journalist and was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights organization.

Among her proudest moments was being asked by the United Nations to write a poem marking the organization’s 50th anniversary. Her work, A Brave and Startling Truth, marked not just the UN’s milestone, but her remarkable journey as well.

Angelou recalled the story of her “crippled uncle,” Willie, who forced her to learn the multiplication tables. Later, she met the first black mayor of Little Rock, Ark., who told her Willie gave him his first job and taught him multiplication.

This points to the fact education changes lives, she says, and challenged those present Thursday night to make poetry part of their quest for knowledge.

“Call on your librarian,” she said, encouraging them to ask for African-American poets, among others. “You need to know the greats.”

She urged students to seize all life has to offer and make a difference in the world. “This is your life, not a rehearsal. Try to enlarge it.”