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Angelou: ‘Rainbows in Clouds’ Liberate Voices

Dr. Maya Angelou speaks at Belmont University Sept. 19, 2011.

Literary genius Maya Angelou urged the Belmont and Nashville communities to “be rainbows and not just in one” by letting their gratitude precede them and encouraging each other during her keynote address at the University’s 10th Annual Humanities Symposium on Monday evening.

“When it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds,” Angelou sang after acknowledging the sold out Curb Event Center’s welcoming applause with a bow. “I am so pleased to be at Belmont. I know that this University with its intent is a rainbow in the sky. I know that there are many young men and women who are students here who represent the first time anyone in their families have ever gone to an institution of higher education. That is a rainbow in the clouds. That means that there is a possibility of seeing light.”

Her keynote address began with her interpretation of God putting a rainbow in the sky in Genesis as a symbol of the possibility of seeing hope. Angelou shared the story of her grandmother raising her in rural Arkansas and how young Angelou was silenced at age seven because she thought her words killed her rapist. Her rainbows included Ms. Flowers, a teacher who told young Angelou she could not love poetry until she felt it on her tongue and let it roll over her teeth.

Her grandmother was also a motivating force. “’Mama don’t care about what these people say about you that you must be an idiot or a moron because you can’t talk. Mama know when you and the good Lord get ready, Sister, you gon’ be a teacher. You gon’ teach all over this world,’” she recalled her grandmother’s encouraging words.

“It is my blessing to teach in French and Spanish and English. If I had not started with that statement, ‘when it looked like the sun wouldn’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds,’ you could think I was bragging. If I am bragging at all, I am bragging about the rainbow in my clouds. People who said, ‘Yes, I believe you could do it. It’s OK you don’t have to talk right now. I believe you can do it,’” Angelou said.

She found peace in memorizing poems and publicly broke her silence for the first time reciting a work at church. She since has become one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Hailed as a global renaissance woman, Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist.

“All we have to do is prepare ourselves for someone who is yet to come and people whose names you’ll never know and whose faces you’ll never see,” Angelou said. For students, that means asking questions to motivate professors to approach their lessons in innovative ways.  Liberating voices requires courage, she added, and “without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently.”

She recited self-written poems (including “A Brave and Startling Truth“) as well as the works of Shakespeare, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edna St. Vincent Millay and even rapped Edgar Allan Poe.

“As Dr. Angelou illustrates so beautifully throughout her work, voices can be liberating and can  ultimately lead to liberation. And we are humbled and honored to be hosting one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time and our personal hero,” said Dr. Amy Hodges Hamilton, associate professor of English.

Author of more than 30 best-selling titles and a Pulitzer Prize nominee, Angelou has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008 and has received three Grammy Awards in addition to more than 30 honorary degrees. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1970 to international acclaim and enormous popular success.

Centered on the theme “Liberating Voices,” the 2011 Humanities Symposium began Sept. 14 and parallels the 2011-12 University theme of “Belmont Questions: Wealth and Poverty.” The Humanities Symposium seeks to fulfill the classical definition of what a symposium should be: a gathering of friends for the purpose of intellectually stimulating conversation on a matter important to humanity, time and place.

This year’s Symposium features 31 events, which together will engage in a week-long conversation about the ways in which the Humanities helps to liberate people by providing a space for them to tell their own stories while listening to others’ stories that are different from their own. Other featured speakers for the 2011 Humanities Symposium included Tennessee State University English professor and Women’s Studies Program coordinator Dr. Rebecca Dixon, poet and essayist Nancy Mairs, University of Texas Languages and Linguistics Chair Dr. Kirsten Nigro and Rafia Zakaria, the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a director for Amnesty International USA.

The Humanities Symposium ends Wednesday morning with a wrap-up session featuring  English professors David Curtis, Amy Hodges-Hamilton, Caresse John and Andrea Stover. For more information and to view the full program of events, visit www.belmont.edu/cas/humanities_symposium.

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During the Sept. 20 Symposium Panel, Dr. Rafia Zakaria shared a piece she had written for her daughter that many in attendance requested to read again. Dr. Zakaria graciously agreed to allow it to be posted on this site: what shall I dream about

In addition, several people requested to read the opening comments from Dr. Noel Boyle during the panel discussion on Harris-Hillman School, which serves Nashville area students aged 3-21 who have multiple disabilities in the severe/profound range and are medically fragile. Dr. Boyle also provided those comments to be posted here: LiberatingVoicesattheHarris-HillmanSchool