Maya Angelou rolled out singing about rainbows.
"God put a rainbow in the clouds," she crooned in a throaty alto.
Her wheelchair came to a halt at the front of the stage, around which 800 people -- nearly all of them women -- stood cheering the Nobel Laureate, poet, civil rights activist, educator, historian and apparent songstress.
"Imagine that," Angelou said, a toothy grin parting her red lips. "Imagine that."
Angelou, one of the most praised living American poets, delivered the keynote address Thursday at the annual fundraiser luncheon for the Fairfield County Community Foundation's Fund for Women and Girls. The $250-per-head affair, held at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich, is one of the fund's biggest annual revenue boosters.
It has awarded some $4 million in grants to local non-profits, aiding more than 5,000 women and girls. The grants have helped girls cope with bullying, dating violence and sexual assault. They've helped women with families earn advanced degrees and secure higher paying jobs.
Frank, funny and almost grandmotherly with a blanket warming her lap, Angelou shared music, poetry and jokes, as well as gritty tales from a childhood marked by poverty, racism and sexual assault.
The takeaway was this: Be a rainbow in somebody's cloud.
"In Genesis, we are told that the rain persisted so unrelentingly that people thought it would never cease," Angelou said when the room had quieted from the excitement of her musical entrance. "So in an attempt to put the people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky.
"However, we know that suns and moons and stars and all sorts of illuminations are always in the firmament. However, clouds can lower and lower. The viewer can't see the light.
"But if the rainbow is put not just in the sky, but in the clouds themselves, that means that in the worst of times, there's the possibility of seeing light."
Angelou talked about growing up poor, black and female in Arkansas before desegregation. She talked about being raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was 7. She talked about her teenage pregnancy.
She also talked about her rainbows: her poems, her children, her mother's nurturing encouragement, the rush from reciting one of her poems before an entire nation at President Bill Clinton's inauguration, her portrait that will be installed Friday at The Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.
"All of that," she said, "because I had rainbows in my life."
Find the rainbows, she said. Be the rainbow.
"Look at you today," Angelou said, scanning the crowd from behind a pair of animal print sunglasses, "influencing somebody whose name you may never know, whose face you may never see, whose complexion may not jive with your complexion -- indeed, who may not call God the same name you call God, if he calls God at all. But here you are, trying to help someone, trying to be a rainbow in somebody's sky."
Angelou, who turns 85 on Friday, left the stage much as she came, only now the song was "Happy Birthday" and she was the audience for an 800-woman chorus.
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