Angelou urged 2002 graduates to shine
On a rainy May day in 2002, at age 74, Maya Angelou delivered the 131st University of Illinois commencement address and received an honorary degree. She was invited to speak after a semester of academic and cultural events on the human experience, inspired by the country's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the previous fall.
Clutching a cane, and speaking mostly without prepared notes, she delivered a speech filled with poetry, song and personal reflections. Here are a few nuggets:
— She opened by singing in her deep, commanding voice, "When it looked like the rain wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds," lyrics written by a 19th-century African-American poet. "Good afternoon, rainbows," she said to the graduates.
— Angelou urged them to take after a "rainbow in my life," her Uncle Willy, who took her under his wing when she went to live with her grandmother in Arkansas at age 3. Partially paralyzed from a stroke, he taught her to do her times tables and made sure she got an education. When he died, she met many others he had helped in a similar way and was inspired to write a song about him.
— Someone in the class of 2002, she said, was going to "help us rid ourselves of the blight of racism and ignorance, of sexism and ignorance, of ageism and ignorance. Somebody is going to show us, teach us, how to rid ourselves of AIDS and heart disease and cancer and sickle-cell anemia. She might be in the graduating class."
— Angelou had settled on the rainbow theme on her rainy drive to the graduation, thinking about what the students' future would be. "The university has shone on you. I encourage you to shine on somebody else. Someone who may not look like you, who may call God another name ... somebody who eats different foods and dances a different dance.
"Light someone's path," she said. "Imagine how wonderful that can be."