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Summit of Sages and Maya Angelou October 23, 2007

Posted by manthey in Academia, Inspiration, Values.
Tags: , , , , ,

The 2007 Summit of Sages was an amazing experience. So many nurses gathered in one place to talk about Social Justice and Nursing. My head and heart are still reeling from everything I heard, saw and thought.  

For me, one of the most moving events was Maya Angelou’s speech and the time she spent with us. 

Walking reverently, majestically, she filled the room with her presence. Carefully seating herself as if fragile, quiet for a moment, she opened her remarks singing: “the rainbow is in the clouds”. This remarkable, beautiful queenly black woman then spoke for an hour, touching on a variety of topics with reverential seriousness, yet delighted the crowd with an infectious smile and keen humor. She occasionally referred to herself as a six foot tall black woman and spoke of her son, of racism, poetry and the meaning of life. 

Throughout her time with to us she frequently returned to the theme of “the rainbow is in the clouds.” She reminded us that rainbows only appear in clouds – not in the bright sunny skies. An act of kindness that seems inconsequential to us may alter the life of the person to whom we were a rainbow in the clouds. 

Dr. Angelou shared the example of her Uncle Willie. Afflicted by almost total paralysis of the left side of body, Uncle Willie earned meager wages as a shop keeper in a small town in Arkansas. However, his condition and small income didn’t deter Willie from being a rainbow in the clouds – touching the lives of thousands and indirectly, millions of people. After the divorce of Dr. Angelou’s parents, Uncle Willie raised Maya and her brother. Stern but fair, Uncle Willie taught them the importance of education, work and ethics.  

On top of raising the two children, Willie befriended a local boy town whose mother was blind and unable to support her son. Uncle Willie paid the boy to do odd jobs and errands around the store, instilling the same values he taught to Maya and her brother. That boy went on to be the Mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas where he would become a Rainbow in the Clouds himself.  

Years later, when Uncle Willie passed away, the Mayor contacted Maya. He wanted to pay the family back for Uncle Willie’s kindness by ensuring his assets and property were protected and allocated appropriately. He met with Maya and gave her the name of a prominent lawyer in Arkansas. This lawyer had a special friendship with the Mayor, as he had been the lawyer’s “rainbow in the clouds,” acting as a father figure, guiding him as a student leader in high school, and helping his mother who had been widowed while only six months pregnant. Later, the Mayor would then help get this lawyer into the Arkansas legislature.  

The lawyer certainly made sure Maya’s assets were protected, but he did much more than that. With his start in the Arkansas legislature, he went on to become the Governor of Arkansas. As a result of Uncle Willie helping a boy in need, another boy in need had gone on to become a lawyer, the Governor of Arkansas, then became the President of the United States: Bill Clinton. 

Interspersed with her stories of Uncle Willie’s shining Rainbow in the Cloud moments, Maya told of being a sixteen year old, unwed, pregnant, six foot tall black girl yearning – but certainly not educated to be – a translator for the United Nations. She contrasted her feelings then with the pride, many years later, at being asked to write a poem for Bill Clinton’s inaugural speech followed by being elated and absolutely awestruck at being asked to write the poem celebrating the fifty year anniversary of the United Nations. 

Between these and other poignant stories, she also used her voice as a musical instrument, singing and calling out, murmuring low and laughing raucously.  

What struck me forcibly was the sub-text of reverence toward life, toward poetry and toward herself as a woman. Her tone, language inflection and facial expressions reflected a deep sense of self-respect for herself and her life. And for poetry. This reverence for women and for poetry embraced the nursing profession. She referred to nursing both as living poetry and as a beautiful example of the Rainbow in the Clouds. 

Tearful and emotional, Maya accepted the honorary doctor of humane letters from the University of Minnesota. You can read more about it, and see the poem she dedicated to us on the School of Nursing’s website.  

As it all settles out I will be writing more, and I know Creative Health Care Management, The University of Minnesota School of Nursing and Creative Nursing Journal will be sharing more details over the next few weeks and months.


1. Heidi Orstad - January 18, 2015

Absolutely lovely tribute. Just read this tonight. Thanks, Marie. Heidi

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