Poet Maya Angelou sat alone on the stage of Bovard Auditorium — no moderator necessary.
Inspired by the packed house of students, staff, faculty and community members Wednesday night, Angelou crafted a message of respect and encouragement for USC.
“By looking at you, I see a possibility of light,” Angelou said.
In her hour-long appearance, the celebrated poet, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and civil rights activist took on a conversational tone, mainly addressing the students in the audience, many of whom lined up as early as 2 p.m. to hear Angelou speak.
“I just thought it would be an honor to be in Bovard, even 100 feet away from [Angelou],” said Corrine Tom, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering.
Tom was one of the first people in line and won a chance to meet Angelou backstage before the program began.
Once Angelou took the stage, she seemed invigorated by the ovations and applause, tapping her feet and smiling brightly at the crowd. She went on to praise the students in attendance.
Angelou encouraged students to seize their opportunity in school and set a path for generations ahead of them.
“We need you desperately,” she said. “Not enough adults tell you how desperately we need you.”
While preparing for this visit last month, Angelou said she would base her remarks on her “evaluation of the university, what it hopes to achieve and what it is actually achieving.”
“I just really like USC,” Angelou said.
Angelou received an honorary degree from the university in 1989. She said she had a number of friends on the faculty and staff, and described the school as a “rainbow in the clouds.”
In her talk Wednesday, she interwove words of advice with thoughts on race, love and purpose in life for younger generations.
“We are the true wonders of the world. No matter the color of our skin, the people we choose to love or the things we choose to believe in, as members of the human race, we are one,” she said.
Those thoughts connected with a number of poems she recited from memory, including Langston Hughes’ “Harlem Sweeties,” infused with a hint of Angelou sass.
“Glow of the quince / To blush of the rose. / Persimmon bronze / To cinnamon toes. / Blackberry cordial, / Virginia Dare wine — / All those sweet colors / Flavor Harlem of mine!”
Each line flowed naturally from Angelou as if the words were her own.
“Poetry has been ignored quite a long time,” Angelou said. “I’ve been using poetry quite a bit to encourage myself and others to be more than they were yesterday, to be more than you thought you could be.”
She told students to go to their libraries right away and to ask the librarians for help finding overlooked literature.
During a humorous moment in her readings, Angelou selected “The Health-Food Diner,” a poem written after a confrontation with a waitress in a vegetarian restaurant.
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots / And Brussels in a cake, / Carrot straw and spinach raw, / (Today, I need a steak).”
At the beginning of the program she flaunted her bilingual abilities as well, singing “Malaguena Salerosa,” a love song of Mexican origin.
Juan Espinoza, director of the speakers committee for USC Program Board, began planning Angelou’s visit in June.
“Seeing her here and seeing a living legend is phenomenal,” Espinoza said. “Words really can’t describe what that feels like.”
And though Angelou did not speak for long, her words stuck.
“Somebody was here before you,” Angelou said. “You’re in an institution of higher education — spiritually paid for, psychologically paid for, here you are.”
Angel Haro, an alumnus of the class of 2009, clung to Angelou’s idea that our ancestors and relatives created the path for him and others to attend a school of higher learning.
“It’s the most meaningful event I’ve ever been to,” Haro said. “She taught me that we’ve all been spiritually paid for.”
Asha Anderson, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering, heard Angelou speak in Washington, D.C. last summer and again Wednesday night on campus.
“She was inspirational each time. She values everyone’s struggles and everyone’s history,” Anderson said. “She has so much strength.”
The 83-year-old is halfway finished with a new memoir, Mom and Me, discussing the impact the relationship with her mother had and continues to have on her.
“It’s a book about my mother and the effect she had on my spirit, my way of being,” Angelou said.
Angelou’s visit served as an optimistic reminder that the work and time spent at USC is a foundation for the rest of students’ lives. Even when the future seems uncertain, this rainbow in the clouds will continue shining vibrantly.