Angelou: it takes courage to survive

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Having waited more than 20 years to hear Maya Angelou speak, I was not disappointed when she appeared at West Virginia University Friday night. I doubt the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among many other books, knows how to disappoint.

I was a little surprised she was so funny (Her stories about flying on commercial airlines versus traveling by private bus were hilarious!) and amazed at her ability to recall so much information. It makes me yearn to be 83, so I can know that much. (Okay, maybe not quite that mature.) How did she cram all the poetry and other stuff in there, anyway? Apparently, it was because she was a reader. And a believer: not only did her mother and other loved ones believe in her as a child, but she believes in her own abilities, and the ability of the human brain, since it is–as she said–far more powerful than any computer out there.

These are important reminders for anyone who claims to not like reading, or who prefers playing video games or hanging out at social networking sites. Especially in this day and age when reading–which expands not just your horizons, but also your brain–takes time, and there are no shortcuts.

In case you’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in person, she is graceful and elegant, and holds herself well. (At age 15, she was already six-feet tall.) She wore a black gown and dark glasses and had her hair covered with a classy-looking wrap. (I think it’s ironic that, except for one Mountain Stage performance, I’ve never sat that close to the stage before. Yet somehow, I ended up with a seat smack in the center, two rows away.)

Here are a few points I took away from her speech: First and foremost, it takes courage to survive–especially if you’ve been abused, as she was at age seven. Second, we all have something to give to someone else; she calls it “being the rainbow in their cloud.” Third, there is no room for racist remarks or attitudes in our world.

That’s when she told the story about being a director and having an office in Hollywood, when the “suits” came by and one of them used a racist term unrelated to Blacks, but apparently connected to some other group of people. Angelou told them she would have none of it and ordered them to leave her office. When the “suits” reminded her it was their office (since they owned it), she promptly left.

Racism “gets down in the carpet, and into the furniture where you’re sitting and then it’s all over your clothes and before you know it, it’s in you,” Angelou said.

Personally, I like her zero-tolerance for racist attitudes and comments, and think it’s something we can all imitate.

There is so much more to say about the woman who is a celebrated poet, author, professor, playwright, producer, director and civil rights activist–among other things. In addition to speaking several languages, she has more than 30 honorary degrees, a Pulitzer nomination, three Grammy awards and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not to mention the fact that she’s been invited to write poetry for former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration speech, and the United Nations.

I think I’ll wrap this up by saying that of all the things I liked about her performance, the one thing she said that I won’t forget is that people who don’t smile can’t be trusted.

Friday night Angelou smiled most of the time. So we can trust her.

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Editor’s Note: Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and the coauthor of Pretty Little Killers, to be released by BenBella Books in July 2014. You can also find the book that led to it, The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese,  on iTunes, B&N, and Amazon. Amazon readers have given it 4.4 stars.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of silence, watch Berry’s TEDx talk. Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change who speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read an excerpt, check out the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”


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