Maya Angelou

The Distinguished Annie Clark Tanner Lecture - May, 8, 1997

Maya Angelou
May 08, 1997— Ogden, Utah
16th-annual Families Alive Conference
Print friendly

Angelou gave this address at Weber State University.

When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

She does not know her beauty, she thinks her brown body has no glory. If she could dance naked under palm trees and see her image in the water, she would know. But there are no palm trees on the street, and dishwater gives back no images. Uh-uh.

Still, when it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

Once arriving in old Baltimore, hate-filled, my heart was filled with glee. I saw a Baltimorean keep looking straight at me. Now, I was eight and very small, and she was no whit bigger. And so I smiled, but she stuck out her tongue and called me nigger.

She called me nigger. I saw the whole of Baltimore from May until December, and of all the things that happened there that's all that I remember.

Still, when it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

Ms. Rosie, when I see you -- you black, brown, beige, red, yellow, pink, white women -- when I see you, Ms. Rosie, sitting, waiting for your man like last week's groceries; when I see you, Ms. Rosie, in your old man's shoes with the big toes cut out; when I see you who used to be the prettiest gal in Georgia, used to be called Georgia Rose, Ms. Rosie; when I see you through your devotion, through your tenderness, your love, your mercy, I stand up, and I realize when it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, you and you and you and you became a rainbow in the clouds.

It is such a delight to be here. And I asked the press, the different media people, earlier this evening, and I now throw myself on your mercy, would you, please, pray for me. This is the first time in well over 20 years I've had difficulty with my voice. I have come to say something, and I'm not leaving until I say it. So send me your best thoughts.

That's the song which I was unable to sing, a 1970s song, "When it Looked Like the Sun Wasn't Going to Shine Anymore, God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds."

That, of course, comes from a statement from Genesis, which informed us that rain had persisted so unrelentingly that people were afraid it would never cease, and so God put a rainbow in the sky. However, a lyricist, black lyricist, in the 19th century -- I think it was a woman -- wrote "God Put the Rainbow in the Clouds."

We know that rainbows, stars, all sorts of illuminations, comets and suns, are always in the firmament. But clouds get so low and dark that you can't see the illumination. But if God put the rainbows right in the clouds themselves, each one of us in the direst and dullest and most dreaded and dreary moments can see a possibility of hope.

I believe that this particular conference is a rainbow in the clouds. I know that there are children who were mentioned and enumerated earlier this evening, those who, I'm sorry to say, are victims of homicide, those who are victims of suicide, those who are victims who find themselves so unlovable, unworthy that they are unable to see anyone who looks like themselves as worthy.

I know that those people, those our children, need desperately to have rainbows in their clouds not just in the sky.

So it is a great blessing to me that you've asked me to come this evening. I have the challenge of making myself clear. But I'm an American, and if I can't be good I will be long. That's it. The issue which faces us all the time, it seems to me, is not should we do good, but there's a question which we must ask ourselves, which is: How good do we have to be?

Now, my belief is as long as the question is asked, our answer is always: We're not good enough yet.

How good do we have to be? To whom are we responsible? Where do our responsibilities end?

In fact, am I responsible -- I'm black, many of you may not have noticed. I'm telling you just in case -- and female and 6 feet tall, and I'm pressing on to being 70 -- pressing.

So am I really responsible for 6-foot-tall black ladies of a certain age? Or am I really responsible to this girl here, this pretty girl who just read that wonderful statement to me? Am I responsible to this president of the institution of higher education, white male? Am I really responsible for an Asian man who I didn't get a chance to meet but who walked down the hall who I just saw?
I think so. I think that when I stand up, I must know that I'm standing up for everybody. And when each of you stands up, I think you have to know you stand up for everybody. And, in fact, you are the rainbow in the clouds.

People whose names you will never know, faces you have not really looked at, personalities you have no idea of, are dependent upon you.

It is important to know that every person in this building has already been paid for, every person. And I'm not speaking of the religious and sacred paying for.

But every one of us, whether their ancestors came from Ireland or Germany in the 1840s and 1850s, after those two areas had been assaulted by the potato blight, or if their ancestors came from Eastern Europe, trying to escape the problems, the little and large murders, arriving at Ellis Island, having their names changed to something utterly unpronounceable, or if their ancestors came from Scandinavia or Malta or Italy or South America or Mexico, trying to find a place that would hold all of the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves, and their countless generations, or if their ancestors came from Asia in the 1850s to build the railroads, to build the country, unable legally to bring their mates for eight decades, or if their ancestors came from Africa unwillingly, bound and tied and lashed, put in the filthy hatches of slave ships back-to-belly, lying in each other's excrement and urine and menstrual flow, they have paid for each of us already.

It is wonderful to think about it, to internalize that piece of information, to realize I've been paid for by people who had no chance of knowing what my name would be. Somehow they paid for me, or I wouldn't be here in Ogden, Utah; I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be able to stand erect and call my name out had they not paid for me.

So obviously the responsibility I have is to prepare myself to pay for someone else who has just come or who is yet to come. It is a wonderful thing. It is liberating. It frees one to think "My goodness, I hadn't thought about that, I've been paid for."

Sometimes when we hear the terrible news, the horrible data about our children, we sometimes feel so embarrassed we forget who we really are, we forget how much we do.

I think it's important to remember how much we do, not so that we can stop, but so that we can be encouraged to do more. It is wonderful to look at what we do. It is imperative that we see what we give to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross and the American Cancer Association and the American Heart Society. It is imperative that we see what we give to the NAACP and the Urban League.

We must see these things so that we can say "You know, we're not too bad." However, our work is cut out for us.

"We give to the American Jewish Society. You realize how much we give?"

And there are people who will be standing outside during Christmas with their bells and fake beards, and we're embarrassed if we don't stop and give something. It is in our nature to give.

All I'm saying is: We take being rainbows in the clouds naturally. And so a conference which is meant to extol the lives, the healthy lives of our children is natural to us. It is no surprise to me to look out and see lots of people, real nice, that not only have they already been paid for but that they and I have the responsibility of paying for those who are yet to come, who are here and looking to us.

I'm going to use African American poetry tonight. I don't have to, it's not in my contract. I could recite Alexander Pope or John Dunne, for that matter. But I want to show you some of the beauty of African American poetry. It's so little known, so rarely taught.

I even suggest here in this institution of higher education that there are few professors who teach African American poetry. Alas. Alas. Rue. Too bad. I would remind you that the first Africans were brought to this country, or what was to become this country, in 1619. Now, I don't mean to cast aspersions on my white brothers and sisters in the audience or my white brothers and sisters up here on the platform or my white nephews and nieces; 1619, however, was one year before the Mayflower docked.

We have undergone experiences too bizarre to have been included in Alex Haley's book phenomenon "Roots" or in the television phenomenon "Roots" in which I played Kunta Kinte's grandmother. Too bizarre. Yet, here we are still here, miraculously here, still the last hired and the first fired, still the butts of many white liberals' jokes, but still here. Upwards of 50 million, and that's a conservative estimate.

I know people that swear there are more than 50 million black people in the Baptist church. And there are only three black atheists in the whole world.

I suggest that in the poetry there is the answer of how a people stay alive, how people stay alive and how lots of people stay alive.

Now, before I really look at the poetry, I would just tell you some of the -- well, it's really more folk poetry -- sort of folk poetry of the 19th century. When some nonblack people write about black people and romance, especially romantic love, because they're so erroneously informed they would have us believe that white people make love and black, brown, beige, red and yellow people just .... not only often, frequently, but always successfully. But in the poetry, you can see how people stay alive, what becomes their rainbow in the clouds.

There is a line in a 1950 folk song in which a black man spoke of the woman he loved. He said: The woman I love is fat and chocolate to the bone, and every time she shakes some skinny woman loses her home.

In the course of staying alive, I always love to hear people laugh. I never trust people who don't laugh or who act as if they put airplane glue on the back of their hands and stuck them to their forehead. No. No. They have not come to stay and to make a difference and to be a rainbow in somebody's cloud. So I like to hear people laugh.

I also like people who love themselves. I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me "I love you." No. If they don't love themselves, not, uh-uh. There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

I love to look in the poetry and see how, indeed, people have stayed alive, how they have found a rainbow in the clouds, right in the clouds. So in dramatic poetry, well, let's see, I would look at Ms. Georgia Douglas Johnson, a 19th century black lady poet, who wrote:

I want to die while you love me, while yet you hold me, while laughter lies upon my lips and lights are in my hair. Yeah. I want to die while you love me. Who would care to live if love had nothing more to give. I want to die while you love me and bear to that still bed your kisses, turbulent, unskinned, to warm me while I'm dead.
Georgia Douglas Johnson.

James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem about a black man loving his son. This is very important especially in this conference because, I'm sorry to say, a number of young black men are informed that they do not love their children. People are often no stronger than the propaganda which is bruited about them, and so they believe it, and then they work and act upon that ignorance.

This is a poem written in 1892 which lets us see a black man talking to his son.

Little brown baby with sparkling eyes, come to your papa, sit on his knee. What you been doing son? Look at that baby, you as dirty as me. Look at those hands, that's molasses, I bet. Come here around, clean off his hand. Boy, the bees are going to get you and eat you up, yeah, being so sticky and sweet. Goodness, land.

Little brown baby with sparkling eyes, who's Papa's child. Who is it never once that he tries to be cross or he lose that smile? Where did he get those teeth? But you're a scamp. Where did the dimples come from in your cheek? No, Papa don't know you. I believe you're a tramp.

Papa, there is some straggler trying to get in. We don't want no straggler trying to get in. Let's throw him away to the great boogerman. I know he's hanging around here somewhere.

Boogerman, Boogerman, come in the door. Here is a little boy you can have to eat. Momma and Papa don't want him no more. Just gobble him up from his head to his --

I knew that would make you hug me up close.

You go away old Boogerman, you can't have this boy. He ain't no straggler, no stranger, of course, he's Papa's darling and sweetheart and joy.

Come to your Papa, Baby, go to your rest, I wish you could always know ease and clear skies. I wish you could stay just a baby on my breast, you little brown baby with sparkling eyes.

In the course of preparing one's self to be a rainbow in the clouds, one needs to have everything going for them, everything, because the person who will come, who is in need of you, will come asking for things you didn't even know about.

I grew up in a little town in Arkansas. I was sent from California when I was three years old to a little village in Arkansas, much smaller than this bank of seats. I stayed with Momma -- I want to come back to that.

But I stayed with Momma until I was seven, and then I was picked up and taken to St. Louis to my mother's people. I'm sorry to say my mother's boyfriend raped me. I was so afraid to tell the name of the violator that I just wouldn't -- I couldn't. The man said he would kill my brother, who was my black kingdom come.

My brother, who is a small person, he's older than I, and even now he is five foot four and a half, and I'm six foot. But then he was nine, and he was a very small person. He said I had to tell him the name of the rapist.

I said "I can't. He will kill you."

My brother said "I won't let him."

So I told him, of course.

The man was put in jail and stayed in jail one day, one night and was released. And about three days later, my brother and I were on the floor of my maternal grandmother's living room. We were playing a game we called Mo-no-po-ly -- because we never heard it pronounced -- when the police came in. The police came in and informed my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, in very large tones that the man had been found dead and it seemed he had been kicked to death.

I was so traumatized by that statement that I stopped speaking. I thought my voice killed the man. And so I refused to speak. I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill people, the lady in the green dress, the man in the brown shoes, the girl in the white skirt. So I stopped speaking.

My maternal family, they were in St. Louis. They were so erudite, so sophisticated, so educated. They tried their best to woo me away from my mutism, but I refused.

And after three months, I'm sure they got weary, became weary of this sullen, silent child who continued to remind them of this heinous crime, they sent me back to Stamps, Arkansas, to Momma, this little village.

My maternal grandmother who, when she died, was over six foot tall, this is Momma (indicating). We all know Momma. She's Irish, she's Japanese, she's Jewish.

I went back to Momma, and Momma used to braid my hair. My hair was huge and very curly. And so Momma would sit me down on the floor the way old ladies still braid black girls' hair in the South. Momma would sit on the chair. Both of us would look out. I would put my elbows around Momma's knees. Momma would bend her hand like that and put it behind my neck so she wouldn't break my neck by accident. And she would say "Sister, Momma don't care that you don't talk. Momma don't care that these people say you must be an idiot or a moron. Sister, Momma don't care. Sister, you know what? Momma know when you and the good Lord get ready you going to be a preacher."

I used to sit there and think: This poor ignorant Momma.

Last Sunday I was asked -- I had done a number of not preachments, but I've spoken a few places. Last Sunday at the Presidential Summit there were four presidents and five first ladies and General Colin Powell. And they asked if I would give the invocation. And I wondered: Why didn't they get Reverend Billy Graham or Reverend Bob Schuler?

And they said "We want you."

And I thought about Momma, in Stamps, Arkansas, long dead. When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

The truth is, each of us has the incredible ability, not just as members of organizations, not just as members of families or people with positions high and mighty, but each one of us has the chance to be a rainbow in somebody's cloud. It's amazing.

Let me go back and tell you about Uncle Willie. I came at three to Grandma and my Uncle Willie in this little, bitty town. Now, Uncle Willie was crippled, his whole right side was paralyzed. Momma thought he was crippled because he had fallen off a porch. Of course, I found out years later he had some neurological malady. His left side was huge.

My grandmother owned the only black-owned store -- she and my uncle -- in the town. So they needed me and my brother to work in the store. So Momma taught me to read and write, and my Uncle Willie taught me to do my times tables.

He used to grab me by my clothes and hold me in front of a potbelly stove, and with a slur attendant to his condition, he'd say "Now, Sister, I want you to do your foursies, do your sevensies, do your ninesies."

I learned my times tables so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if I'm awakened after an evening of copious libation I can be awakened at 3 o'clock in the morning and asked "Do your twelvsies." I've got my twelvsies.

I was so sure that if I didn't learn somehow my uncle would manage to hold me, open the potbelly stove, throw me in, close the door. Of course, I found that he was so tenderhearted he wouldn't allow a spider or moth or fly to be killed in the store.

My Uncle Willie died, and I went down to Arkansas to see about things. I stopped in Little Rock and was met by one of America's great rainbows in the clouds, the black lady who led the children into the high school in the late fifties in Little Rock.

So she met me, and she said "Girl" --

I didn't have to tell you she was black; right?

She said "Girl, I know you're staying overnight. There is somebody who is dying to meet you. I want to bring him to your hotel."

I said "Okay."

She brought about 15 people to the hotel. But she brought this black man who was really all right.

I said "How do you do?"

He said "I don't want to shake your hand. I want to hug you."

I said "I sure appreciate it."

He gave me a wonderful hug. He said "You're down here in Arkansas because of Willie's dying."

I was stunned. My Uncle Willie was so ashamed of his condition, of his paralysis, that he left Stamps twice willingly in his life. Once he went to Hope, Arkansas, which was 30 miles away, and in the thirties he went out to California to visit my dad.

Here up in Little Rock this erudite handsome black man in a three-piece suit said you know, "The State of Arkansas has lost a great man, losing Willie."
I said "Uncle Willie?"

He said "The United States has lost a great man, losing Willie."

I said "W. M. Johnson?"

He said "You know, in the twenties 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, taught me to do my times tables."

I asked him "How he would do it?"

He said "He used to grab me like this...."

He said "Because of him, I am who I am today." He said "I guess you want to know who that is?"

I said "Yes, sir."

He said "I'm mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, first black mayor in the South."

Willie. Willie.

When I was growing up in that little village, the boys, as they were euphemistically called, used to ride over to the black area, threaten people and kill people, because they didn't agree with God's choice for the colors of the people's skin.

And my brother and I would dig the potatoes and onions out of the bin, help my Uncle Willie get down into the bin, because it was dangerous for a black man to be out anywhere when the boys would ride. And we would cover him with potatoes and onions, and we would look out the window at the boys.

They didn't wear sheets, they didn't have to. My brother and I would look out at the men, and all of them seemed to have big, what they called, constitutions, big guns, that sat out, now

I know, like theatrical props. And we would watch them as if they were mysterious creatures from another planet.

The next day, I went downstairs. The mayor said "I have someone to look after you."

I went downstairs. There were eight of them. I started to laugh and to cry. There they were looking after me. My Uncle Willie, dead, was looking after me.

When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.

I went to each one, and I shook each hand and gave him a big kiss right on the chop. And I said "I thank you in the name of Uncle Willie. Thank you."

The mayor said "Now when you get down to Louisville, you look up this lawyer. He's a good old boy. He'll look after your property."

I expected an older, dignified black man, a lawyer. I went into an office, and a young white man ran up.

He said "Ms. Angelou, I'm just delighted to see you." He said "The mayor called me this morning, told me you were coming down here. He's the most powerful black man I ever knew, more important than that he's a noble man. Because of him I am who I am today."

I said "Let me sit down here."

He said "He caught onto me when I was 12 years old. I'm the only child of a blind mother. He made me love to go to school and to learn. And, Dr. Angelou, I'm now in the State legislature."

I looked at Willie, crippled, black male, in the lynching South, in the South where lynching was the order of the day, or disorder of the day. I have no idea the range of his influence. No idea. But I do know that when it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds. I know that.

So I wrote a song which is sung by Ms. Roberta Flack. I wrote it for you. I wrote it for all of us. I wrote it for Weber. I wrote it for the men and women who planned this conference and the men and women who support the conference. I wrote it for all of the children who are in need of us.

I can't sing it like Ms. Flack sings it. I can't hardly sing it as I sing it. But here is the lyric.

Willie was a man without shame. Hardly anybody knew his name. Crippled and limping and always walking lame, he said but I keep on moving, I'm moving just the same.

Solitude was the climate in his head. Emptiness was the partner in his bed. Pain echoed in the steps of his tread. But he said I keep on following where the leaders led.

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 that children sing.

People called him Uncle, Boy and Hey, said you can't live through this another day, and then they waited to hear what he would say. He said I'm living in the games that children play.

You may enter my sleep, people my dreams, threaten my early morning's ease, but I keep coming, following, laughing and crying, sure as a summer breeze.

Wait for me, watch for me, my spirit is the surge of open seas. Call me, wait for me, I'm the rustle in the autumn leaves.

When the sun rises, I am the time, when the children live and laugh and learn and love, I am the rhyme.

Look for me, just call me a rainbow in the clouds.

I must do one more poem because I don't think you've laughed enough.

I told you I don't trust people who act that way (indicating). Yet some years ago Arsenio Hall telephoned me and asked if I would come onto his program.

I said "I thank you, Mr. Hall, but --"

He said "Oh, Doctor, no, ma'am. Don't -- Oh, no, ma'am. I'm just a commoner."

I said "Please, I don't know if I would have that much in common with your constituents."

But he was so persuasive, so I went on the program. And I enjoyed myself so much I went back eight times.

But the first time I did a piece called "Seven Women's Blessed Assurance," and I enjoyed it. And then I stayed around Los Angeles a little while, and then I flew from Los Angeles to Geneva, Switzerland, took a train over to another city and took the funicular up the side of the Alps to the foot of the Matterhorn, and there I gave a three-and-a-half-hour speech in French, English and Spanish, thank you. I was so full of (indicating). I mean, I was full of it.

I took the funicular back after about six days, and over to Geneva I went. And I was standing in the Geneva airport with an umbrella, my purse over my shoulder and a briefcase when a young white man came up to me. He said "Dr. Angelou?"

I said "Yes."

He said "Ms. Angelou."

I said "Oh."

He said "It's hard to believe, it's Ms. Angelou. I was in the audience at Arsenio Hall the night you did 'Seven Women's Blessed Assurance.'"

I said then, and I say now, "Woo-woo-woo." (indicating).

Nothing to do with it but to laugh. I laughed. Then I straightened up my umbrella that was way over there and the young man was gone.

And all those Swiss were looking at me like (indicating.)

And here is this piece which I wrote to make my ownself laugh.

The first woman said One thing about me, I'm little and low, I find me a man wherever I go.

The second woman said They call me string bean 'cause I'm so tall, men see me, they ready to fall.

The third woman said I'm fat as butter and sweet as cake, men start to tremble every time I shake.

The fourth woman said I'm young as morning and fresh as dew, everybody loves me, and so do you.

The fifth woman said I'm little and lean, sweet to the bone, they like to pick me up and carry me home.

The sixth woman said When I passed forty, I dropped pretense 'cause men like women who got some sense.

But the seventh woman is my favorite, for obvious reasons. The seventh woman said fifty-five is perfect, so is fifty-nine, 'cause every man needs to rest sometime.

Speech taken from