*Maya Angelou is a former poet laureate. An earlier version of this story misstated her title.
COLUMBIA — Maya Angelou has seen rainbows and clouds in her life.
“When it looked like the sun wasn’t shining anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds,” Angelou sang after a standing ovation at the Missouri Theatre.
Angelou sat on a wooden chair, tall enough to accommodate the 6-foot-tall former poet laureate,* and told the sold-out crowd about the people and events that she considered "rainbows" and "clouds" in her life.
Her first rainbow was her Uncle Willie, the only black shop-owner in Stamps, Ark., who was paralyzed on one side of his body. While Angelou worked in his store, she said, her uncle would grab her with his good arm and ask her to recite multiplication tables.
Uncle Willie "caught hold" of a young boy, age 11, and taught him to love learning, Angelou said. The young man grew up to become the mayor of Little Rock. Years later, the same boy, now mayor, organized an armed guard to accompany Angelou to her Uncle Willie’s funeral.
Last year, when Angelou spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C., a young man came over with his family. He introduced himself by telling her that their families had been intertwined for decades, she said. He was the grandson of that mayor.
“I had no idea the impact of his rainbow,” Angelou said. “I can’t help but think that I’m supposed to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
Angelou has had clouds in her life, not only rainbows. For example, as a 16-year-old, pregnant, unwed mother living in San Francisco, she watched women come and go from the United Nations building. Angelou said she cried "copiously" because her situation prevented her from living a life like theirs. Her life was in a cloud.
Many years later, a rainbow emerged from that cloud. U.N. leaders asked her to write a poem for the world in honor of its 50th anniversary. She accepted immediately.
“Whenever you are asked to do a good thing, say yes right away. If you don’t, they may ask someone else,” Angelou said.
She told of how poetry has been her coping mechanism throughout her life. She has used poetry to laugh, calm hurt feelings and feel self-worth.
Angelou used her time on stage to speak about the importance of the young generations. She told the students in the audience that adults don't tell them how important they are to the future, Angelou said.
“This year I’m celebrating my 84th birthday on this planet and still kickin’ it” Angelou said. “If you can do better, do better. You deserve it, and we need it.”
Her appearance was part of the first One Mizzou Week,a week-long program that celebrates diversity. Xavier Billingsley, president of the Missouri Students Association, said Angelou was the perfect person to begin One Mizzou Week because her life embodies the mission of One Mizzou — always looking for positives in negative situations.
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