Poet Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday, spoke at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1996. Below is a copy of the Pantagraph story of her talk:
A woman who rose above poverty, neglect, sexual abuse and racism gave a Bloomington crowd something to look for: a rainbow.
For more than an hour, Maya Angelou offered a message of hope through humor and poetry Friday night at the Shirk Center on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus.
Six-foot-tall and packed with panache, Angelou took to a small platform, a place she joked was about the size of her hometown of Stamps, Ark., and offered a slave song.
"When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the sky, " she crooned in a deep voice. Poetry is one such rainbow, she said. Go to the library, she ordered.
Specifically, the best-selling author and poet encouraged people to ask their local librarians for help finding the works of 19th century African American poets such as Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. (Don't expect an immediate response from the librarians, who will likely be in shock, she warned.)
"It belongs to you - take it, read it, put it in your mouth and chew it, put it in your brain, " Angelou said. " It will help you stand erect."
Angelou began to put poetry into her heart and mind at the age of 7 after her mother's boyfriend raped her. The man was found beaten to death shortly after spending one day in jail for his crime. Angelou then stopped speaking until just before her 13th birthday because she thought that she had killed the man by simply reporting what he had done.
During her almost six years of silence, Angelou read voraciously, consuming and memorizing the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, Hughes and more. She found her voice in order to recite poetry and hasn't stopped since.
She spoke to the crowd like a friend, gently saying she was aware that everyone in the room had experienced a loss, fear, grief, and disappointment and yet had all found a reason to rise again. She told the crowd to think of their ancestors who fought hard battles and endured pain and racism to create a better world.
"They have paid for each of us already. Once you accept that, you are liberated, " Angelou said. She said she brings her past "heroes and sheroes, " with her wherever she goes.
"You take the poetry of the person and bring her or him with you and you'd be amazed. It's like grandma said, `It puts starch in your backbone."'
She shared how her Uncle Willie, a poor and crippled black man who lived "in the time when lynching was the norm, " made a difference in her life with his love. She said her Uncle Willie taught her multiplication by a pot belly stove and inspired her as well as several politicians in Arkansas.
Throughout her speech, she prompted many outbursts of laughter as she sang, danced, cooed and cackled on stage. At one point, she told the crowd, "I could talk all night, " and someone replied, "Go ahead." Another time she stopped to say "God bless you, " to someone who sneezed in the gym of about 3,500 people.
"I look for things that will make me smile in the dreary times, " Angelou said as she related her love of laughter. She doesn't trust people who don't laugh or people who don't love themselves and yet say they love others.
"It's like the African proverb: `Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt."
The crowd gave Angelou a standing ovation after her presentation. Although microphones had been set up in the gym, Angelou did not offer time for questions. She left an impression on many, who called her a "role model, " and said they were awed by her presence.
"I was so drawn to her, " said DaToya Burtin, 18, a freshman at IWU who sat before Angelou in an English class earlier in the afternoon Friday and in the front row of the Shirk Center later that night. "It was like I was hypnotized. It's like meeting the one person in the world you want to meet. She's like a girlfriend I can tell all my secrets to."
Freshman Mona Williams said she remembers thinking Angelou was "amazing, " when she watched her on TV as she read her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning, " at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in January of 1993.
"We don't see a lot of black women speakers - unless they're political."
After the presentation, Williams said Angelou "sounds like my granny. She proves you don't have to be a big person to make a difference."
While Angelou may be best known for her poetry, she has many achievements as an educator, actress, playwright, civil-rights activist, producer and director. She was recently named America's ambassador to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
The university paid about $25,000 to bring Angelou to campus. Members of the IWU group, "Black Men in Action, " supported the idea of inviting Angelou, sold tickets and ushered for the event.