Ansha'La Braswell reflects on Maya Angelou's LSU appearance
"I have set my rainbow in the clouds." – Genesis 9:13
Junior Ansha'La Braswell was first inspired by Maya Angelou during elementary school, and she saw that inspiration strengthened while listening to Maya Angelou speak at LSU.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations
After receiving a standing ovation when the curtains lifted for "A Night with Maya Angelou," the living legend thrilled the packed house at the LSU Student Union Theater with stories of her life and her poetry.
With the crowd on the edge of its collective seats, Angelou began by telling of how God put a rainbow in the clouds when it seemed like the sun would never shine again, a passage inspired by the book of Genesis. She said that she was pleased to be at LSU because the university was a rainbow in the clouds, especially for first-generation African-American students.
For LSU student Ansha'La Braswell, the opportunity to hear Angelou was a dream come true. The junior child and family studies major from Franklin, La., was first inspired by Angelou in elementary school and has been moved by her writings throughout her life.
"I read her poem 'Still I Rise' in elementary school, and it's something that always stuck with me," said Braswell. "Then I read 'Phenomenal Woman,' and that is my favorite poem of all time. So, when I saw that I had the opportunity to see her when she was coming here, I knew there was no way I was not going to get tickets."
Braswell was excited to have the opportunity to not only hear Angelou speak, but to truly take in the experience of seeing how she carried herself on stage, and Angelou did not disappoint. On several occasions she broke out into song, and she presented her poetry as if she was performing a monologue in a play rather than a reading a poem at a microphone.
"I was just so amazed that she was going to come to LSU and that I was going to get to see her because most people are not going to have the chance to see her speak, especially people my age," said Braswell. "She always looks like she has so much poise and charisma and is just an intelligent woman. I wanted to see her in action. To see how she acts when she's not only reciting poetry, but when she's speaking candidly about her life."
Coming from humble beginnings in a small town in Arkansas, Angelou rose out of poverty to become one of the most significant women of her generation, speaking out against racism and sexism. As an African-American woman herself, Angelou's poetry has resonated with Braswell and has helped her find her own inner confidence and acceptance.
"Maya Angelou has always been one of my favorite poetesses because she's an African-American writer, but she also speaks so much about confidence and being a woman, being confident in yourself and confident in your heritage. After seeing her speak, I feel like I am definitely going to learn more about African-American history and literature."
Although Angelou's career has now spanned more than 50 years, as she has aged and her appearances have been come less frequent, college students have become less familiar with her writings and her influence.
"For previous generations, she was just there," said Braswell. "I think for my generation and generations after me, you have to either stumble upon her or find her, or have a really good teacher that is going to introduce you to her. She's this jewel, but you have to find her because she's not just out in the public as much anymore."
One of the most poignant moments of Angelou's conversation came when she spoke about her early life. Angelou described being raped by her mother's boyfriend as a young girl. The rapist had threatened to kill her brother if she turned him in, but after her brother convinced her, she reported her assault to the police and her rapist was arrested. After spending a night in jail, he was released, but was soon murdered.
Seeing this event through the eyes of a child, Angelou convinced herself that it was her words that had killed her rapist. So that her words could never kill another person, she remained mute for the next six years, speaking only to her brother, her confidant.
"When she spoke about being raped and not speaking for six years, I never knew that and it was really profound," sad Braswell. "She felt like her words killed someone. That her words were so strong that she wasn't going to speak again. Now her words are that strong, but in a positive way instead of in the negative way she thought before."
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, LSU welcomed living legend Maya Angelou to the LSU Student Union Theater. The visit marked Angelou's second appearance at LSU, with the first coming 20 years ago in 1993.
Eddy Perez/LSU University Relations
Angelou also told several personal stories about the people who have inspired her work over the years. Those tales included a performance with comedian Richard Pryor as part of an NBC special and meeting Tupac Shakur on the set of "Poetic Justice," and later hearing from his mother about how she saved his life.
Those stories brought her full circle in her message. She said that rather than bragging about herself, she was instead bragging about the people that had inspired her and were the rainbows in her clouds. She also challenged the audience to appreciate those that inspire them, and to be the rainbow in someone else's clouds.
"I am so inspired by what she said, how she said to dream big because no one can tell you, you can't do it. You're the only person who can stop you," said Braswell. "She talked about the rainbow in the clouds and how you should cherish the people who are your rock, like her brother and her grandmother were for her."
Having performed several of her own works and the works of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, whose poem "Sympathy" produced the title of her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Angelou concluded her appearance by reciting "Still I Rise," the poem that originally piqued Braswell's interest in Angelou.
"I was hoping that she would do either 'Phenomenal Woman' or 'Still I Rise' because those are my favorite poems," said Braswell. "She didn't do 'Phenomenal Woman,' which is my absolute favorite, and I didn't think she was going to do 'Still I Rise,' but at the end, she did. It was the perfect ending for me."
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear, I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise, I rise, I rise.
– From Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise"