Chip Minemyer | Angelou delivered simple, powerful messages from a life of challenges, complexity

Maya Angelou smiles while waiting for the crowd to finish applauding at the beginning of her speech at Eisenhower Auditorium in 2010.
Maya Angelou smiles while waiting for the crowd to finish applauding at the beginning of her speech at Eisenhower Auditorium in 2010. CDT file photo

“You may shoot me with your words,

“You may cut me with your eyes,

“You may kill me with your hatefulness,

“But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

— Maya Angelou, from “Still I Rise”

During a visit to Penn State in 2010, Maya Angelou had a simple message for an Eisenhower Auditorium crowd.

Find “the rainbows in your clouds.”

She added these gems of positive thinking:

“Laugh as much as possible. I don’t trust people who don’t laugh.”

“You have no idea what you can do for another human being just by saying, ‘Good morning.’ ”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, actress and teacher died May 28 in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was eulogized Saturday at Wake Forest, where she taught.

For many who knew her, including retired Penn State professor Charles Dumas, Angelou’s seemingly simple messages grew from a depth of thought and experiences.

“The complexity comes with the context of her life,” Dumas said. “We all say we’re going to forgive people when they hurt you. Thrown into the context of something like apartheid, suddenly the simplicity of that message is complicated by the circumstances.

“Dignity. Standing up for what you believe. That’s the true message,” he said. “And it’s one thing to say that. But if you look at her life, she lived that message.”

Angelou’s biographies track her journey from a child in Missouri and Arkansas to a teenage single mother in California, and a dancer in San Francisco and New York City and across Europe.

She was molested as a child, and didn’t speak for five years after learning that her attacker had been killed by her uncle. Her young-adult years included experiences such as driving a cable car and running a brothel, reports show.

In the early 1960s, she studied numerous languages in Egypt and worked as an editor and taught music and drama in Ghana, while in a relationship with South African civil rights figure Vusumzi Make.

In the mid- and late 1960s, she worked with civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were assassinated, King on Angelou’s birthday in 1968.

Her autobiography “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” — both beloved and at times controversial — was published in 1969.

A few years later, Dumas said, he met Angelou when he was a student at a community college in New York.

“She wasn’t a celebrity,” Dumas recalled. “But I knew who she was, because she was very well-known in the African-American community.”

Dumas said he counts Angelou among his heroes, at the top with the late Gwendolyn Brooks, another poet and Pulitzer Prize winner.

“Her life was a great benefit for all of us,” Dumas said of Angelou. “For those of us of a certain age, this is the passing of an era, or at least of the people of an era.”

CDT archives show that in stops at Penn State in 2004 and 2010, Angelou entertained and uplifted audiences with a mix of songs, poems and stories of her life.

Dumas taught in Penn State’s School of Theatre and department of African and African-American studies. An accomplished actor with a long film resume, he also served as senior professor at the University of The Free State in South Africa and taught at Temple.

He penned a regular column for the CDT before running for Congress in 2012.

And when he is called to speak, Dumas said, Angelou is near his heart.

“Almost every time I’m asked to speak, I do ‘Still I Rise,’ which I think is her best-known poem,” he said. “Young African-Americans, especially African-American women, they do it with me. They’ve got it memorized. It’s like an anthem.

“Young women memorize the words. But it’s interesting when you see how they react. They stand up taller, they’re more confident. And that’s her radiance.”

Dumas finds inspiration in Angelou’s life experiences, as well as in her prose and poetry.

“This was a woman who, if you go back to her childhood, all the odds said she was not going to succeed,” Dumas said. “She had to literally find her voice.

“And when she found her voice, she sang, and never stopped singing.”