The overcast, flurry-filled day provided a natural visual contrast for Maya Angelou's message on Monday (April 16): be the rainbow.
Speaking in a packed Dimnent Memorial Chapel, Angelou addressed an audience of more than 1,100 that included students, faculty and staff, and members of the community. Some had traveled for hours to hear the acclaimed author's address, sponsored by the Student Speaker Series.
She opened with song: "When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine any more, God put a rainbow in the clouds."
Explaining that the gospel song was inspired by the Genesis story of Noah, she noted, "At the worst of times, the dreariest and meanest and least hopeful of times, there's the possibility to see light."
In day-to-day living, she said, each individual has the power--and the responsibility--to be that light, that rainbow, for another.
"Just imagine yourselves as light, light, because somebody is watching you--you should know that," Angelou said. "It may be that I can say a kind word. Or give a big smile. I might just stand up."
She reflected on rainbows in her own life, like the disabled uncle who had patiently taught her the multiplication tables while she was growing up in Arkansas. Years later, back in the state for his funeral, she met others he had touched, including Little Rock's first African-American mayor, who had also learned from her uncle while working in his store years before. She remembered reflecting on her uncle's legacy and thinking, "how far are the reaches of his influence? How much does he light up?"
Such rainbows, Angelou said, may be relatives, friends or even complete strangers. She noted that they also include those who have come before--like the immigrants of every race who came to the United States and helped build the country that today's generation inhabits.
"What we have because they have paid for us is a rainbow in the clouds," she said.
The way to honor such gifts, Angelou said, is to do the same for another. "Prepare yourselves so that you can pay for someone else who is yet to come," she said.
Hope junior Amy Avery of Macomb, Mich., who chaired the Student Congress committee that arranged Angelou's visit and introduced her to the audience, was impressed with the person and message both.
"She's one of the most gracious and loving and courteous people I have ever met," Avery said. "And her message was pertinent to students, which I really liked. She challenged us."
"We have certainly been blessed to have her on this campus," she said.
The Student Speaker Series through which Angelou appeared, sponsored by the college's Student Congress, debuted with author Alex Haley on Jan. 30, 1992. Others featured through the years have included actor Danny Glover and actor/director Felix Justice; comedian and talk show host Bertice Berry; author James Malinchak; former principal Joe Clark, inspiration for the film "Lean on Me"; and attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on environmental issues.
Immediately prior to Angelou's talk, she was presented an honorary Doctor of Letters (Litt.D.) degree. She was presented for the degree by Student Congress President Louis Canfield. The degree was conferred by Hope College President James E. Bultman and Provost Jacob E. Nyenhuis.
Prior to the speech, a Duke Ellington arrangement of the 23rd Psalm was was sung by Margaret Kennedy-Dygas, professor of music, accompainied by the Jazz Ensemble I under the direction of Brian Coyle, associate professor of music.