Maya Angelou died yesterday. I wasn’t able to read much of the coverage since I spent most of the day at Houston City Council, which after several hours of public comment resoundingly passed, 11-6, an ordinance which outlaws discrimination against, among all manner of groups, gay people.
It was heartening to hear several of the speakers in favor of the ordinance, called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, use quotes from Angelou’s canon to bolster their case.
I saw Angelou speak in person once, in October 2001, on the campus of the historically black Texas Southern University, which neighbors the University of Houston, where I was then serving as the news editor of The Daily Cougar. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, she deftly weaved the still-raw emotions from that day with other painful parts of American history.
I was very moved by the experience. My story, unfortunately, did not manage to get posted online, so does not live on the Internet. But below are some excerpts.
“When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the cloud.”
Echoing the refrain of a 19th Century spiritual, renowned black American poet Maya Angelou said all people should be thankful for their own “rainbows,” people who guided them through troubled times.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to speak to you,” Angelou told the audience with the powerful stage presence she developed in her other career as an actress. “But if I am to speak to you, I have something to say.”
She said the spiritual song, recounting the biblical story of the Flood and Noah’s Ark, “means that at the worst of times, at the meanest and dreariest and most frightening of times, one can see the possibility of light. The viewer can see the possibility of hope.”
Concerning the period since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Angelou said, “We are seeing some times which seem to be the worst of times.
“I have been listening around the country, amazingly, to hear people terrified, and in fact, almost paralyzed by fear.
“I think it would be wise of us to be chary, to be wary, to be cautious, to be careful, but to fear only God,” she said, defining fear as “holding something in such awe. The only thing to hold in such awe is God himself.”
Angelou went on to say that black Americans had a perhaps different perspective on the attacks.
“We have lived under waves of threats. I’ve seen some of my white sisters and brothers who say, “You know, it’s the first time on American soil.
“But we’ve been here, on this soil, since 1619, and it’s very rare for us not be threatened. We have known threats.
“And somehow, miraculously, we stand up. We not only survive, we thrive with some compassion, some humor, and some style.
“Just now in our country, in our world, we are desperate for rainbows in the clouds. Just now, it is time to show courage. It is the most important of all virtues, because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.
“One is not born with courage; one develops it. I would encourage us to develop courage in increments. I would encourage us to not use, or allow to be used in our presence, any racial pejorative.
“I will not sit and allow the word ‘nigger’ to be used in my presence. I will not allow the use of words meant to demean Jews, or Muslims, or Mexicans. No, not I. I will not have that poison put in the air for me to breathe.”
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.