CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Maya Angelou, a 6-foot-tall, unmarried and pregnant 16-year-old, was looking into the United Nations headquarters in San Francisco and bawling.
"I read that the U.N. was hiring people who would be simultaneous translators and that they were paying the unheard of amount of $150 a week," Angelou said. "I used to go down to that building and watch as Eleanor Roosevelt would enter, and I would weep copiously and say, if I wasn't black, 6 feet tall, unmarried and pregnant, I could learn all the different languages and go into that building and become a simultaneous translator."
Fifty years later, Angelou, now a world-renowned poet, activist and author, was asked to write a poem for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a "poem for the world," she said.
"I said, 'Yes, thank you.' And I wept with gratitude when I went to the U.N. and delivered that poem," Angelou recalled. "I knew that I was only able to do that because I had rainbows in my clouds."
Angelou, a National Medal of Arts recipient and the author of the memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," gave a riveting 40-minute address to a packed house in the Clay Center on Friday about life, hope, overcoming hardship and the transforming power of poetry. The award-winning poet helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the YWCA in Charleston at the organization's Signature Centennial Event at the Clay Center.
"In Genesis, we're told that it rained unrelentingly and people thought it would never cease," Angelou began. "And in an attempt to put people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky. Well, in the 19th century, some African-American poet, probably a woman, said God put a rainbow not just in the sky, but in the clouds . . . because if the rainbow is in the cloud itself, the viewer can see the possibility of release, of hope."
"If you look in poetry, you'll find everything you need to stay alive and awake," said Angelou. "Poetry to me is a rainbow in the clouds."
Angelou detailed how poetry played a prominent role throughout her life, from trivial experiences to profound life-altering events.
She penned a humorous homage to meat -- "Carrots straw, spinach raw, today I need a steak"-- after unsuccessfully trying to order a potato and salad at an uppity health-food restaurant with an insufferable waitress.