Hundreds of men and women of all ages filled MU’s Jesse Auditorium to capacity on Saturday to see famous poet, author and actor Maya Angelou.
She was welcomed onto the stage with a standing ovation. She slowly made her way to a wooden podium, leaned on it and bowed graciously, and then joked that she wished the podium was clear so she could better see the faces of all those who came to see her.
“You’re here to prepare yourselves to be rainbows in the clouds,” Angelou said, addressing the crowd.
Angelou last made an appearance at MU about 20 years ago. She joked with the crowd that it took that long for her to be invited back.
Tickets for “An Evening with Maya Angelou,” which was sponsored by MU’s MSA/GPC Speakers Committee, sold out on Tuesday. Sarah Powers, chairwoman of the Speakers Committee, said that less than half of the events held at Jesse Auditorium sell out.
Angelou began by telling the audience about her Uncle Willie, who was paralyzed over half of his body.
“Willie was a rainbow in my clouds,” Angelou said.
Angelou described the influence that her Uncle Willie had on a young man he had hired to work in his store in Stamps, Ark., where Angelou grew up. After her uncle died, Angelou said that young man told her that her uncle had taught him the importance of education by teaching him how to multiply. He later became a mayor in Arkansas. The mayor then went on to influence a lawyer, who went on to inspire others.
In an attempt to teach the audience a life lesson, Angelou said she had no idea the “width and depth” of her Uncle Willie’s impact on others. Even though he was disabled and a poor black man in the South, Angelou said his influence on one man created a chain of influence that is yet to end.
“Where is the end of his influence?” she asked. Angelou then connected her story to one of her poems titled “Willie.”
“I may cry and I will die, but my spirit is the soul of every spring. Watch for me and you will see. That I’m present in the songs children sing,” she read.
Throughout the night, Angelou’s speech was more like a conversation. She made her audience laugh as she told witty jokes, but when she began to recite her poems, the crowd sat silently and listened intently to the words that she spoke and the tone of her voice.
Since the 1970s, Angelou has written a series of autobiographies, essays, children’s books and books of poetry.
Some of her more famous works include her first book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which was nominated for the National Book Award, and “On the Pulse of the Morning,” a poem which she read at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.
Angelou has won three Grammys for best spoken word album and was also nominated twice for a Tony award for acting.
In October 2006, Angelou released her latest book, “Celebrations: Rituals of Peace and Prayer,” which is a collection of poetry that celebrates moments in her life.
Angelou told the audience that throughout her life she has lived in Egypt, learned Arabic and studied Buddhism, to name a few things.
She has done these things, she said, despite the fact that she stopped speaking after her uncles killed her mother’s boyfriend because Maya told them that he had sexually abused her.
As a child, she said she remembers her grandmother brushing her hair and telling her that despite what anyone else said about her, she was not dumb.
Her grandmother also told Angelou that when she and God were ready, Angelou would be a teacher.
Angelou attributes her grandmother and her uncle to influencing her growth as a person.
“We each have the possibility to be a rainbow in someone’s life,” she said.