Maya Angelou’s recent passing recalled memories for Lebo HS grads Erin Levine, Class of ’92, and her brother Dave, Class of ’03. Back in 1996, 11-year-old Dave watched from the bleachers of the football stadium at the University of Delaware as his sister joined about 4,000 fellow graduates on the field to hear that year’s featured commencement speaker: Maya Angelou. She held the entire audience spellbound with her inspirational words. UD graduate John Brennan described the event (see below) for the school’s Messenger publication. Ms. Angelou’s timeless message resonates as well today as it did 18 years ago.
Standing before the largest crowd in University of Delaware Commencement history, poet Maya Angelou sang out, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the sky.” Addressing the hushed and attentive crowd of 25,000 graduates, family and friends, she told the members of the Class of 1996 that they have “the ability to be rainbows in the clouds.”
According to Genesis, she said, when it seemed that the rain would never end, God created the rainbow. “But, in the 19th century,” Angelou said, “some African-American lyricist decided that God must have put the rainbow in the clouds, because rainbows, suns, moons, stars, novae, comets, all sorts of luminosities, are in the sky all the time. However, clouds can so lower and lower that you cannot see the brightness. So, the suggestion was God put the rainbow in the clouds themselves so, in the worst of times, in the dreariest of times, in the most hopeless of times, you can see some light….”
“There have been people-your parents, your guardians, your teachers, your beloveds, your professors, people who didn’t even know your name-[all] have been rainbows for you. This is the truth of it: Every graduate today has already been paid for.
“Whether her or his ancestors came from Ireland in the 1840s and ’50s trying to escape the potato blight; or, if they came from Eastern Europe trying to escape the little and large murders, the pogroms, arriving at Ellis Island, having their names changed to something utterly unpronounceable; or, if they came from Malta or Greece or Crete or South America or Mexico, trying to find a place that would hold all the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations; or, if they came from Asia in the 1850s to build this country, to build the railroads, unable legally to bring their mates for eight decades; or if they came from Africa, unwillingly, bound, lying spoon fashion, back to belly in the filthy hatches of slave ships and in their own and in each other’s excrement and urine, they have paid for each of you already,” she said. “Without any chance of ever knowing what your faces would look like, what mad personalities you would foist upon the world, what brilliances you would give to us, what rainbows you would become, they have paid for you.”
The challenge for the Class of 1996 is to pay for those still to come, she said. “In that case, then, all you have to do is see yourselves as rainbows. There are young men and women, maybe in your families, maybe not; maybe in your neighborhoods, maybe not; young men and women who will never see you, to whom you owe incredible responsibilities because you have been paid for. I think it is a wonderful thing to take on the responsibility for the time you take up and the space you occupy. It is exciting. It is onerous, but, it is honorable.”
She told the graduates that it is her prayer that they continue with their educations, win awards, fall in love and accept it in return, but, she added, “In any case, where you will be greatest, the area in which you will be the most important will be the area in which you inspire, encourage and support another human being.”
Angelou concluded her remarks by reading the Class of 1996 a poem, entitled A Brave and Starling Truth, which she wrote for the United Nations in 1995. The poem ends:
When we come to it,
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body,
Created on this Earth, of this Earth,
Have the power to fashion for this Earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety,
Without crippling fear.
When we come to it,
We must confess that we are the possible;
We are the miraculous, we are the true wonder of this world.
That is when, and only when
We come to it.