Tucker celebrates 50 years

by Tracy Landers | 4/15/02 5:00am

World-famous poet Maya Angelou, in her soothing powerful voice, began the Tucker Foundation's 50th anniversary keynote address in a crowded Spaulding auditorium Saturday afternoon with these words: "When it looks like the sun wasn't gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the sky."

Using the lyrics of a 19th-century slave song inspired by the book of Genesis, Angelou told Dartmouth students they had a responsibility to become "rainbows in the clouds" for their family and the world. Her message was made all the more personal by a warm sense of humor that caused fits of laughter in speaker and audience alike.

Angleou, the 74-year-old author of the best-selling autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," recounted childhood memories of people who inspired her, such as her uncle, "Crippled Willy." That man taught Angelou, as well as the first black governor of Alabama, her multiplication tables by affectionately holding her face in front of a hot stove.

"I've still got my twelveses," Angelou laughingly said, showing that everyone could make a difference in the world, even a crippled old black man during the "lynching times."

The theme of loving humanity that ran throughout her speech is captured in Angelou's statement, "I am human, and nothing human can be alien to me." This was a common sentiment in many of the poems Angelou shared with the audience. She read the works of poets such as James Weldon Johnson, Ann Spenser and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whom she said she taught alongside Robert Burns.

Speaking directly to the students in the audience, Angelou said, "You're the best that we have ... there's nothing that should be a barrier to you. Don't leave Dartmouth without having read something. Read aloud so you can hear how the words sound. Don't be afraid, and never ever whine. A whiner lets the bully know a victim is in the neighborhood."

Angleou emphasized the importance of discovering poetry, saying, "I encourage you to go to your librarian and say 'Maya Angelou told me about African-American poets, and I think I need to know about them.'"

She credited the survival and prosperity of the 50 million African-Americans in the United States to the power of poetry. "You need someone to tell you that you're all right -- poetry does that. Poetry can lift you spirits to remind you who you really are."

Growing up in a small village in Arkansas in the 1930s and '40s, Angelou's optimistic message of hope for the future sharply contrasted with her knowledge of the hardship of the past. She said of Dartmouth students, "You need to know someone was there before you, lonely before you, abandoned before you ... abused before you."

"I'm a little embarrassed -- no, I'm a lot embarrassed -- to have to hand you a world so full of hate," Angelou said. Yet she expressed confidence in Dartmouth students' ability to change the future for the better as long as they never give up.

As soon as Angelou concluded her speech, she was honored by a standing ovation, proving that Angelou followed her own advice in becoming "a rainbow in the clouds" for the Dartmouth community.