A poet with a song in her heart

By NICLOE HUTCHESON, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2008

TAMPA - Maya Angelou sauntered onto the stage decked out in a black chiffon dress and sparkly beads. The crowd welcomed her with a standing ovation. The first words out of her mouth were not the prophetic nuggets of wisdom for which she has become known, but a song about rainbows.

Much of the night was that way. Angelou, an award-winning poet and actor and the latest installment of the University of South Florida's Lecture series, sprinkled bits of comedy and impromptu storytelling in between the layers of her life and the lessons she learned living it.

Her chief message to the crowd at the USF Sun Dome: Make a difference in the lives of others.

"I know the students who come here have the potential of being rainbows in the clouds," she said after finishing her song.

Angelou, 79, told the crowd how she was raped at the age of 7 by her mother's boyfriend. The man was jailed for one day and released, only to be found dead days later. Angelou became mute after learning about the man's death and did not speak again until she became a teenager.

But the tragedy did not define her life, she said.

"You need to know someone has been abused before you and survived," she said. "Better yet, thrived."

Angelou is considered one of the most accomplished writers of the 21st century and of late has been a mentor to the likes of Oprah Winfrey.

Angelou's appearance Monday night serves as a pre-festival event for the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival, which begins Friday and runs through Jan. 27. The festival will include events throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or 727 893-8828.