Honoring Maya Angelou’s Call To Be Somebody’s Rainbow
In March 2013, Maya Angelou greeted 10,000 ASCD Annual Conference attendees in Chicago, Ill., with a song of hope and gratitude:
"When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the cloud."
It's not just that we have rainbows in the sky, but in the clouds themselves, she explained. So that even when it seems like the rain won't let up, we have something there to encourage us.
"You have sacrificed a lot to be here," Angelou stated. "I'm here to tell you how grateful I am and remind you that you are rainbows in clouds." She wouldn't have achieved so much in her life, she said, if not for the "rainbows" in her life.
Widely known as an author, poet, educator, activist, and actress, the then 84-year-old Angelou charmed the packed convention with heartfelt parables of the teachers who emboldened her to weather the storms of life.
As a three-year-old, she learned to read from her grandmother, and she learned the multiplication tables from her uncle Willie.
"Willie, crippled, born under the oppression of lynchings and terrible violence against Blacks—he was my rainbow," she said.
As it turns out, her uncle was somebody else's rainbow, too. Angelou recalled how again and again, black leaders with connections back to Little Rock and Willie's hometown of Stamp, Arkansas, would stop her to say how Willie had touched their lives.
"You have no idea the power you have," she commended the crowd of educators. "It delights my heart to encourage you to continue."
Through the darkness of surviving rape and the six years of silence that followed this trauma, Angelou drew light from the reassurance of her grandmother. "She told me, when you and God are ready, you will be a teacher." In her life, Angelou received 70 doctorates and taught in halls from Rome to Tel Aviv.
"I'm not bragging on myself; I'm bragging on the rainbows in my clouds," Angelou was quick to clarify.
She closed her keynote address describing the seeming hopelessness of her situation at age 16. "I was six feet tall, a woman, pregnant, unmarried, and black." The United Nations was just forming, and they were hiring translators to work with the ambassadors and their staff. Angelou said that she cried watching the coverage of this new organization, thinking, if only she wasn't who she was, those opportunities would be open to her as well.
Fifty years later, Angelou was asked to compose a poem to be read at the anniversary of the founding of the UN.
"I have an attitude of gratitude for all the people who have encouraged me," she beamed, and read the poem, saying, "I want you to think of this as written for you." The last stanza reads:
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
(from "A Brave and Startling Truth")
"I am grateful to be a rainbow in somebody's cloud," Angelou sang, and ASCD educators carried her sagacious trill from Chicago to distant hills.
Angelou died this morning in her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.