The rich red curtains lifted and there regally sitting was Maya Angelou. All of us in the theater rose to our feet and greeted her with a standing ovation. Tears welled up in my eyes to be in the presence of a woman who has achieved so many incredible things in her long life.
Wearing all black and dark sunglasses she began to sing in her deep and sultry voice “When it looks like the sun wasn’t gonna shine anymore God put a rainbow in the clouds.” She explained that these lyrics came from an African American song from the 19th century that she was pretty certain was written by a woman. She went onto explain that she has had a lot of clouds in her life, but that she has had so many rainbows, and she carries all those who have been rainbows in her life with her wherever she goes.
Maya encouragingly told those present "You're here so that you can become a rainbow in somebody's cloud. Each one of us has possibility and potential … the responsibility of being a rainbow in the clouds. That's who we are at our very best. Prepare yourself so that you can be a rainbow in someone else's cloud.”
Click below to hear Maya talk about rainbows in the clouds.
Maya shared how when she was just three years old and her brother five their parents were getting a divorce and neither of them really wanted to care for them. So she and her brother were put on a train by themselves with notes tied to their wrists that said to deliver them to their paternal grandmother Annie Henderson in Stamps, Arkansas.
There in Stamps she would also meet for the first time her Uncle Willie who was crippled. The children would work in the store with their grandmother and uncle and would learn to read and do their times tables. Maya shared how these were known as the lynching years in the south and sometimes she and her brother would help to hide their uncle in a box under potatoes and onions to keep him safe.
She also had this story to share about Uncle Willie. After my Uncle Willie died I went to Little Rock where I was met by one of America’s great rainbows in the clouds, Daisy Bates, the woman who led the nine black students into Central High in the late fifties in Little Rock. She told me that there was somebody who was dying to meet me.
She introduced me to a handsome black man in a three-piece suit. When I met him, he said, “I don’t want to shake your hand. I want to hug you.” He then said, “You know, Maya, the State of Arkansas has lost a great man in losing Willie. In the 1920s, I was the only child of a blind mother. Your Uncle Willie gave me a job in his store, paid me 10 cents a week, and taught me to do my times tables.”
I asked him, “How would he do it?” He said, “He used to grab me like this...”
Then I knew he was talking about Uncle Willie.
He said, “Because of him, I am who I am today, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, first black mayor in the South.”
I look back at Uncle Willie, that crippled, black man in the South where lynching was the disorder of the day, I have no idea the range of his influence. But I know that when it looked for me like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put “a rainbow in the clouds” in the form of Uncle Willie.
Who has been a rainbow in your cloud? How can you take that experience and prepare yourself, as Maya Angelou says, to be a blessing to somebody?
The evening’s talk would go on to include snippets of songs being sung, the reciting of poetry from memory, belly-laughing stories, encouragement, inspiration and a continual reminder of the connections between us all.
Maya had this to say about courage: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can't be consistently fair, consistently kind, consistently generous, consistently just, and certainly not consistently loving without courage.”
She also offered up this sage wisdom:
“You need someone to tell you, not just that you're alright, but that you're fabulous.”
I don't trust a person who says "I don't like myself, but I love you, so be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
Yet she also told hilarious stories about why she doesn’t travel by air anymore and how she had this problem in airports because she looked like Maya Angelou. When she finally had enough of the airport scene in the middle of a trip she called around to see if there was a bus she could borrow and ended up being loaned the one that belonged to Prince, who she later learned is quite particular about who uses his bus.
A reoccurring theme in Dr. Angelou’s talk was the reminder of how we are all connected and also that we are all human. She offered up a quote by Publius Terentius Afer, better known in English as Terence, who had been brought to Rome as a slave. The senator who had bought him, later educated him and then impressed by his abilities, freed him. Terence wrote six plays, all of which have amazingly survived through the years, but he is especially know for the following quote "I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me." Maya stated that this statement made somewhere between 185-159 BC always helps her to find empathy for others, even in difficult circumstances.
How could looking at the people in your life through this lens help you make a deeper connection?
Here is one final video of Maya Angelou to inspire you.