Maya Angelou draws a historic crowd

Maya Angelou speaks at the Curtis M. Phillips Center in Gainesville, Fla., on Wednesday, February 27, 2013.

Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 11:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.

Mary Brown’s jaw dropped when she realized she was one of the last among hundreds to get a ticket to see Maya Angelou.

The 61-year-old had driven from Jacksonville to see the famed poet speak, and she considered herself blessed to have gotten a seat inside.

“It was really by the grace of God,” she said as she rushed to her seat.

On Wednesday night, more than 1,700 people descended on the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts for the free event, which was sponsored by Accent Speaker’s Bureau, Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

With a line that stretched down the sidewalk to Surge Area Drive, hundreds were left without tickets as the seats rapidly filled up. A crowd gathered outside, where organizers had set up a video screen complete with loudspeakers so those who couldn’t get in could still hear Angelou’s talk.

Jason Degen, technical director for facility operations and technical services, told people outside that Angelou had drawn a historic crowd.

“We have never had an Accent speaker where we had to sit people outside,” he said.

The capacity crowd inside rose to its feet when the curtain rose on Angelou, who wore a smile during the ovation.

She began with a song that referenced the biblical great flood, saying that God not only put the rainbow in the sky to assure people he would not flood the world, but he put the rainbows in the clouds so they could reach down to us.

Those rainbows, she said, are the people in our lives who help us.

“We’ve always had rainbows in our clouds, or we wouldn’t be here,” she said.

For a little more than an hour, Angelou shared stories of her life growing up in Stamps, Ark., and recited poetry of her favorite poets as well as her own — much of it from memory.

She also offered straightforward advice, making sure to remind the audience often to go to their nearest library and seek out poetry.

“Memorize it,” she said. “Have it in your brain. You can have it in your laptop or iPad, but you know those things can go off on you,” she quipped.

Moxie John, a 23-year-old family youth and community sciences senior at UF, said she has admired Angelou’s work for years. Seeing her in person, she said, was a rousing experience.

“I was emotionally drained afterward,” she said. “So good.”

Eastside High School senior Angela Acosta, 17, went with members of a writing club at school. A poet herself, she was left inspired and impressed.

“As a poet, I was really impressed with her recall,” she said.

Toward the end of the evening, Angelou said it may have sounded like she was bragging to the audience about her life.

She clarified.

“I’m bragging about the rainbows in my clouds,” she said. “The people who have helped me … I’ve done a number of things because of them.”

Sun contributors Clare Lennon and Brett Le Blanc contributed to this report. Contact Joey Flechas at 338-3166 or

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