Valley Voices

Janice Stevens: When Angelou lit up the room

FresnoJune 6, 2014 

Carrying a lit candle and softly singing "This Little Light of Mine," Maya Angelou made her dramatic entrance into a makeshift theater at Fresno City College. With her deep contralto voice soaring throughout the overflowing gymnasium, a hush fell over the crowd. Perched on bleachers full to capacity, no one made a sound. "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine," rang out, her message of "live life to its fullest" loud and clear.

I relished the unique privilege to see and hear this extraordinary literary giant, and I encouraged my students in my English composition class to attend as well.

"Extra credit. Some of you need it. Just go," I insisted. I don't remember those students today. But I will never forget the inspiration we received, as if just being in the same room might translate to achieving our own literary accomplishments.

In later years, Angelou said that she was a teacher, then a writer, attesting first to her love of people, then to her passion of making music with her arrangement of words.

Always preferring to speak to community college students, Angelou visited Fresno City College on May 2004 as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's pivotal Brown v. Board of Education, the decision against segregation in public schools. She believed the decision opened doors for everyone, not just African-Americans. And to her, education was key. "I was able to find an education, not because of my town, county, state or country but because of my involvement with lights, books. … I lived in the library," she said in an Associated Press article.

She recounted her struggles growing up in poverty. A single mother by 17, she beat the odds with her talents that included not only literary prose, but dancing, singing and acting. She became an acclaimed actress well before her literary genius touched our lives.

Angelou's words capture the essence of her love for humanity and all of nature. While researching our book, "An Artist and a Writer Travel Highway 1 North," Pat Hunter and I meandered through the towering coastal redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument. Strategically positioned placards amid ancient trees feature quotes from John Muir as well as from other prominent literary figures. One quoting Maya Angelou aptly portrays the mood created by the forest and creativity's necessity for solitude:

"Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which

will not withdraw from us.

We need hours of aimless wandering …

observing the mysterious world of ants

and the canopy of treetops."

 

Perhaps misunderstanding was at the heart of the controversy over her first memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," where Angelou writes about surviving rape and teen pregnancy. She saw it as honest, a work of inspiration and hope. If she can survive and thrive after such a tumultuous childhood, then we can, too.

An award-winning poet, Angelou received three Grammys for her spoken-word albums, and in 2013 received an honorary National Book Award for her literary contributions. Known as "the people's poet," her immortal verse will continue to illuminate the human condition and inspire the soul to sing.

Two days after Angelou's presentation at FCC, my class and I discussed her visit. I wondered if they would feel the same sense of awe I had listening to her poetry, familiar to us from college textbooks. I wondered if hearing Angelou's musical language would light a literary fire in these students.

The customary bored expressions and quick glances at the slow-moving clock were absent. Instead, one after another shared their impressions of the lecture. "She made me feel like I could be someone," or "The way she read was magical." Many students expressed surprise that Angelou had such a majestic and expressive voice, mesmerizing in itself. I knew then that she had touched their minds in a way I never could. And I was grateful. Angelou had given us that opportunity to see her "little light," and those lyrics inspire me today as then, "Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine."

She recounted her struggles growing up in poverty. A single mother by 17, she beat the odds with her talents that included not only literary prose, but dancing, singing and acting.

Janice Stevens of Fresno is an author and instructor of English literature and creative writing. Her most recent book, co-created with Fresno watercolorist Pat Hunter, is "An Artist and a Writer Travel Highway 1 North." Contact her at janicemstevens@cs.com.

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