MAYA ANGELOU: Of Religion and Rainbows

Times Staff Writer

Renowned poet, activist and teacher Maya Angelou explores the importance and the impact of faith in people’s lives in the new PBS special “Maya Angelou: Rainbow in the Clouds,” airing Friday.

The one-hour documentary follows Angelou’s visit inside San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district, where she goes inside Glide Memorial Church, which has an ethnically and economically diverse Methodist congregation. She also briefly attends Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., which is steeped in a tradition of African-American belief and faith.

“Rainbow in the Clouds” features a Sunday morning service at Glide, which blends old-time gospel, ‘60s-style political awareness and a communal atmosphere, led by the charismatic Rev. Cecil Williams. Included are interviews with parishioners whose lives have been saved by Williams and Glide Church.


Angelou, 64, is a true Renaissance woman. Born in St. Louis, Mo., she spent her youth in Arkansas and San Francisco, where she studied drama in dance. After touring Europe in “Porgy and Bess,” Angelou became the first woman editor of the Arab Observer in Cairo, and later became the feature editor of the African Review in Ghana.

In the 1960s, at the request of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angelou became the Northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Angelou’s bestsellers include her autobiographical account of her youth, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” plus “Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diie,” “Gather Together In My Name” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.” She also wrote the 1972 feature film, “Georgia, Georgia,” the first original script by a black woman ever produced.

Angelou talked about “Rainbow in the Clouds” by phone from her Winston-Salem home with Times Staff Writer Susan King.

How did “Rainbow in the Clouds” come about?

The executive producer came to me with an idea of doing a series called “Maya Angelou’s America” and asked how I would go about trying to get seven or eight one-hour programs on America.

I have a theory that there are about 2,000 Americas--that every group is certain that they are the real Americans. Texans are certain they are the Americans, and in North Dakota it is a given that North Dakota is America. So I thought it would be wonderful if I could try to show faces of America that the larger society very rarely realizes or really knows. So my son and I wrote this first one, “Rainbow in the Clouds.”


It is my intention (to do more documentaries). I want to look at white Americans in the hills of West Virginia. I don’t want to look at the poverty and the underprivileged. Everybody has done that, but I want to look at the culture which they have kept for 200 years--music, medicine and the making of whiskey--and I would like to do (shows) on all sort of things.

Unfortunately, the majority of the documentaries are on the pathos and bathos of the other America. Well, I don’t won’t to do anything like that. Not that I am trying to say that there is no sadness, but there is something else which keeps people alive.

How did you first learn about Glide Memorial Church?

I can’t even remember. But I have been a member of Glide for 20 odd years. When I am on the coast it is my church. It is a Methodist church. And I belong here (in North Carolina) to a Baptist Church. I simply refuse to be controlled (to one religion).

Do you find that faith is playing a more important part in people’s lives these days?

I think that, strangely enough, faith is more elusive today and more needed today because our lives are in an extreme conflict. I think that Bob Dylan was absolutely right. Years ago he wrote a song called, “You Got to Serve Somebody,” and I think that more and more people are beginning to think that “I better put my money down on something; I better put my faith down and my belief down on something.”

Is that why Glide attracts such a diverse congregation?

(It attracts) elected officials, lawyers, judges, criminals, housewives and house-husbands and many elements of the underworld. Everybody feels it is their church and that is what Cecil wanted to make known, that the church is really home, the church is God’s home. There is no place greater than the home of God, except in our individual selves, than the places where women and men set aside to go and worship, to just come together, and praise of the spirit of God.

Have you always had strong religious beliefs?

Yes. I have always tried to find myself a church. I have studied everything. I spent some time with Zen Buddhism and Judaism and I spent some time with Islam. I am a religious person. It is my spirit, but I found that I really want to be a Christian. That is what my spirit seems to be built on.


I just know that I find the teachings of Christ so accessible. I really believe that Christ made a sacrifice and for those reasons I want to be a Christian. But what kind, I don’t know. I don’t know what time of day I am at.

What’s your next project?

(Director) John Singleton (“Boyz ‘N the Hood”) has a new movie, “Poetic Justice,” and the central figure is named Justice and writes poetry. They are using my poetry exclusively (in the movie). That’s great! I am coming out (to Los Angeles) to do a cameo as a character in the movie. I am looking forward to that.

“Maya Angelou: Rainbow in the Clouds” airs Friday at 8 p.m. on KVCR and at 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS.