“When it looked like the sun won’t shine any more, God put a rainbow in the clouds.”
Maya Angelou, who died Tuesday at 86 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., opened her last appearance in the Twin Cities on Oct. 23, 2012, singing those lines from an 18th-century slave song. She went on to mesmerize the crowd at the State Theatre, many of whom were devoted fans who had heard her hour-long talk before but had come again to be baptized in her sonorous words and to take bits of inspiration from her storied life.
An indefatigable fighter who also became an icon of grace, Angelou had long ago transcended the slights and horrors visited upon her as a black child in the Jim Crow South and as a woman in America. She has been a first-hand witness, confidante and participant in some of the most notable historical events of our nation as it shifted from segregation to fairness and opportunity.
She also transcended means that made her famous: her startling memoirs, her lyrical, image-rich poetry and her resonant public speaking.
She had become, for millions, a beatific figure and guiding light.
After her performance, she greeted a few well-wishers backstage at the State Theatre. The numbers were smaller than usual, at the instruction of handlers who wanted to protect her health. Angelou was a frail 84-year-old.
Still, she had a surprisingly strong handshake. And her voice also was firm, both in the performance and in the post-show encouragement she offered to well-wishers. While she could no longer move like she did as a young dancer, while she could no longer march like she did during the Civil Rights era, she still had her voice. And in her quivering and quaver, you could hear the echoes of history, and the walls that she had made come down.
“Goodbye, young man,” she said sweetly, her face almost twinkling. “I will see you again.”