You’ve talked about the music and the content of the “I have a dream” speech as two different things to emulate. How do you see the relationship of style and substance in rhetoric or writing?
maya angelou: substance is the subject that moves you the most. if it’s a love of civil rights, then that’s the substance. how you get over it: you should be able to change your style the same way you change your jackets. that is, in one circumstance, you may need to preach. in another circumstance, to carry out your idea. in another, you may have to tell a joke. in another, you may have to sing a long, lonely blues. but you should be able to change that; be smart enough to know where to put what, so you don’t try to swim in the stove. do you understand? that’s it, and you’re not trying to tap dance in the pool. So when you have the substance, you decide what style I should deliver this? What style should I deliver this in? Should I shut up and put my hand on my cheek and act like I’m deep? Or do I have to tell a joke or do I have to befriend someone to end my substance?
Her work with dr. King, do you think that was the most character-building event in your life?
maya angelou: well there have been so many, and hopefully still many. certainly, working for dr. Martin Luther King Jr. it was very important to me. developing a brother/sister relationship with malcolm x has been very important to me. be friends with dr. johnnetta cole has been very important to me. the sisters and brothers you meet give you the materials your character uses to build itself. It is said that some people are born great, others make it, some are forced. in truth, the ways your character is built has to do with all three. those around you, those you choose and those who choose you. Let me add this as well, I am a very religious person, so it is the presence of God, the constant and unwavering presence of God that continues to help me maintain a character that I am proud to display to young men and women. . and I won’t be, I hope, too embarrassed to meet my maker in the final move.
it was dr. king the person who had the most influence on you?
maya angelou: i was one of those people, certainly, but my sister, my grandmother and my uncle who raised me, who taught me, through their actions, that it was good to be good, that it was good to be good, influenced me the most than anyone else since. my family and family friends continue to inform me that the character I’ve become will reflect the characters I’ve been with.
Were you always aware of your own talents? As a child, you were silent for so many years.
maya angelou: i was mute from the age of seven and a half until i was almost 13. i didn’t speak. I had a voice, but I refused to use it. My grandmother, who was growing me up in a small town in Arkansas, used to tell me, “Sis, Mommy doesn’t care what these people say: ‘You must be an idiot, you must be an asshole.’ Mom doesn’t care, sister. Mama knows, when you and the good lord are ready, you’ll be a preacher.” well, i used to sit and think to myself, “poor ignorant mom. She doesn’t know, I’ll never speak, much less preach.” she has touched me — not to preach, so to speak — but to write about morality, about hope, about desolation, about pain and ecstasy and joy and triumph in the human spirit. That’s how it seems to me, that’s my vocation. and I write it for all of us, because I know that human beings are more alike than different.
How old were you when you finally realized your talents?
maya angelou: i haven’t realized my talents yet. I believe that each one of us comes from the creator dragging shreds of glory. so at this wonderful young age of 65, i still don’t know what the lord has for me to do. I try to live up to the energy and the call, but I wouldn’t dare say I haven’t scratched the surface yet.
Did you experience racial discrimination as a child? Have you ever been discriminated against or mistreated because of your color?
maya angelou: yeah, i got it. Yeah. a black person grows up in this country, and in many places, knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt on the tongue. Plus, it can be just as dangerous as too much salt. I think you should fight to improve for yourself and for everyone. it is impossible to fight for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. because equal rights, fair play, justice, are like air; we all have it or none of us have it. that’s the truth.
Was there a first time that stood out more than others, when you first realized that the world was going to treat you differently, as part of a group?
maya angelou: i was very young, in this little town in arkansas, and there was a movie theater downtown. the “downtown” consisted of a paved street. there was a movie theater and the girl who worked selling tickets lived on a piece of land that belonged to my grandmother. and he knew for a fact that she and her family hadn’t paid rent for three years. They lived behind the village, on our land. I went up to get a ticket. he may have been eight or nine years old. my grandmother was very religious and she didn’t believe in movies, but she once allowed me and my brother, once in a while. We went up to buy a ticket. and the girl took my dime, and wouldn’t put her hand on it. I put it down she had a box of cigarettes, she took a card and put my dime in the box of cigarettes. now, the white kids got tickets. she took the money from her and gave them checkbooks. she didn’t give us anything. she just gestured, which meant we had to go up the side steps, the outside steps, crawl through a really horrible little door, and sit on these three or four benches to watch the movie. and all because I was black. And I thought, “Well, I don’t think I go to the movies much.” so I decided to boycott the movies. that was the first time I can remember, and I must have been about eight or nine years old. but mostly, we lived on the black side of town and didn’t see other people much.
How horribly insulting. what did you do with the sense of insult at the age of eight?
maya angelou: i cried a lot. and my brother, he has always been the genius of my family. my family got closer to making a genius when they made my brother. he was a year and a half older than me. he told me that they were stupid, that they were ignorant, that they were stupid. I agreed to all of that, because I knew he was smart, he would know, but it didn’t lessen the pain.
Did you take it personally? Did you know it was because you were African American?
maya angelou: yeah, but that’s personally. absolutely. I knew that if I were blonde and fair-skinned, it wouldn’t happen to me. It happened to me, Maya, who was black.
When you’ve had that childhood experience of discrimination, how do you get over it? how do you get rid of it?
maya angelou: you really can’t get rid of him. He is there. what you can do is put positives in there along with the negatives. but it is a fact that you will remember it for the rest of your life.
There’s a poem. listen to this. It was written by Countee Cullen. it’s called an “incident”.
“once, riding in old baltimore,
head full, heart full of joy,
I saw a Baltimorean staring at me.
now, I was eight and very small, and she wasn’t one whit bigger.
and then, I smiled, but she stood out
his tongue, and he called me “black, black, black.”
I saw all of Baltimore
from May to December.
and of all the things that happened there,
That’s all I remember.”
How can young people maintain their sense of self-worth and not give in to anger or self-destruction when faced with hate or even violence?
maya angelou: the hardest thing in the world, it seems to me, is realizing that i am a child of god; to have that on my mind all the time. there is one more difficult thing. and I have to remember that the brute is also the son of God.
Do you think prejudice is based on fear? do you think scared people need to put others down to feel strong?
maya angelou: people feel guilty. and the guilt is blocking. guilt immobilizes. guilt closes the airways and veins, and makes people ignorant. And so, because they’re guilty, they can’t just say, “Listen, I feel guilty about your past. I feel guilty that you have lived this life of slavery, and blah, blah, and this. I feel guilty.” So what they do is say, “I’m going to smash your face in. I’m going to trip you when you start running down the hill. I’m going to keep you out of my neighborhood because I can’t come face to face with my guilt.” in many cases, that’s what’s operating underneath.
it is very difficult to hate someone if you look them in the eye and recognize them as a human being.
maya angelou: oh! we must add that: “and recognize him as a human being”. because people have lynched people, and people have thrown people into gas ovens, and they looked into their eyes. but to empathize you have to accept that “this person is as human as me”. once you do that, it’s very difficult to impose cruelty on another human being.
It has been said that “the strong man or woman is the man or woman who can stand up for their rights without hitting back.” Is that your feeling?
maya angelou: well, it depends on the circumstances. I agree that it is better to control yourself, if you can, and not hit back. but on certain occasions, it is imperative to defend yourself. I don’t think it’s fair to ask anyone not to defend themselves. So this is a type of question that has to have a number of codicils, a number of addenda. one must know how to say: “in these circumstances, it is very Christian to turn the other cheek”. but if someone is really trying to rip your head off with a baseball bat, I don’t know how long you’re supposed to stand there and turn the other cheek, so he or she can get a better angle to rip your head off.
Have you ever been in a position to defend another person who was being discriminated against?
maya angelou: oh yeah, many times. I raised a black child. I stood up for myself first and raised a black child. I have black children, and I have gay friends, and gay children. I have defended the whites.
I will not sit in a group of black friends and listen to racial slurs against white people. I won’t hear “honky.” I won’t hear “jap”. I won’t hear “kike”. I won’t hear “greaser.” I won’t hear “dago”. I won’t hear it as soon as I hear it, I’m like, “excuse me, I have to go. I’m sorry.” or if it’s at my house, I say, “you have to go. I can’t have that that’s poison, and I know it’s poison, and you’re spreading it on me. I won’t have it.” Now, it’s not an easy thing. and you don’t suddenly become brave enough to say that. But you start small. and you sit in a room, and someone says, if you’re all white, and someone says, “well, the black ones,” you might not have the courage at the time, but you’re like, “wow! oh my god! ya it’s eight o’clock. I’ve got to go,” and walk away. Little by little, you build up courage. You sit in a room and someone says, “Well, you know what the Japanese did then and what they’re doing now.” Say, ” mm-hmm! I have to go. My God! It’s already six o’clock. Go away. Continue to build your courage. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to say out loud, “Wait a minute. I stand up for that person. I won’t allow gay bashing, lesbian bashing. not in my company. won’t do it.”
Once you find that voice to speak, it gets easier, instead of harder.
maya angelou: that’s true, and sweeter. people start to identify you. someone starts to say something and someone else pushes him and says, “don’t say that. she is sitting there. when we talk about racism, we have to see that we are not only talking about acts against blacks, we are talking about vulgarities against any human being because of his —his— race. this is vulgar that’s what it is, whether it’s anti-Asian, whether it’s the use of racial pejoratives about Jews, about Japanese, about Native Americans, about blacks, about Irish, it’s stupid, because what really it is poison poisons the spirit, the human spirit. I know there are blacks who say, “I can use the n-word because I mean it.” I don’t believe that I think it’s vulgar and dangerous, given from any mouth to any ear. I know if the poison is in a bottle that says p-o-i-s-o-n and has a skull and crossbones on it, it’s poison. but if you pour the same into Bavarian glass, it’s still poison. so i think racism is vulgar any way you look at it.
Many people start life with prejudices that they may have learned from their parents or friends. What would you say, for example, to a young man, a white man or woman, who befriends African-Americans at school but has parents who are uncomfortable with it or don’t approve of it for some reason?
maya angelou: there is a line in hamlet where hamlet’s stepfather, who is actually his uncle, is being scolded by hamlet. and the king says to hamlet: “you must remember that every father has a father.” now what that really means is that your parents are repeating what their parents told them. and their parents told them what they had been told. Obviously, young man, you’re breaking the mold. Thank God for that. so that when you have children, you do not tell the children what was said to you. this is the hope we have. that’s why young people are the best we have, and all we have. we have prayers, and need, and just a terrible longing that you young people can break the mold.
what do you think of malcolm x’s statements about the period in his life when he believed in at least an armed, if not violent, struggle to further the cause of civil rights in this country? strong
maya angelou: that was part of growing up. he was a friend and a brother to me. and I have written about his last days when we were together. we are all in process. and that is what I want to say, again, about intelligence and its value. We have all believed the most outrageous things at different times in our lives. and as the position became untenable, as we saw through the position that we were occupying, this is where the courage comes in: being able to say, “say everyone, you know what I said yesterday, and I said with such fervor, and I said with such passion? Well, I don’t believe in that anymore. I have been changed. Now that’s courage. that is, you have the courage: the insight to see and the courage to say. that was martin that was malcolm that was it.
but it is true that malcolm x sometimes called white people “blue eyed devils” and advocated violence as a means to an end.
maya angelou: there was a time when malcolm espoused the belief that all white people were “blue-eyed devils”. but he took his own life into his own hands when he said, publicly, that he had been to mecca, and there he saw fair-haired, blue-eyed men whom he might call brothers. he said, “so everyone, what I said was wrong.” now, it took an incredible amount of courage to say that, because after he said it, he didn’t live very long. he was killed after he said that. but he saw it, and he said it. and that has to be, I mean, you have to greet him.
In your opinion, what are the differences and similarities between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?
maya angelou: malcolm x and martin luther king were much more alike than different. their methods of achieving ends were different. martin luther king had been influenced by mahatma gandhi and the concept of nonviolent struggle. malcolm x had been influenced by the head of the nation of islam, elijah muhammad, and of course he had also lived a different life: he had lived on the streets and in prison. So his modus operandi was different from Martin Luther King’s, but essentially, deep down they were very similar. they wanted the best for their people. now malcolm said, because of his people, but he changed too. And if you read the autobiography of malcolm x by mr. Haley, you’ll see towards the end of the book where I’m mentioned in the book. because mr. malcolm x came to africa and i was able along with others to help him meet all the powerful africans in ghana at the time. He said that he would return to the United States to say no, that he no longer believed that all whites were “blue-eyed devils,” that just being born white didn’t make a person evil. now that took a lot of courage, because he had said it so many times and so eloquently and with such passion. but he changed, so that when he changed, he came back more in line with martin luther king than he had shown before. they were very similar.
Martin Luther King, Jr. he had many religious leaders marching with him. Is that a difference between those times and these? Do you think we have the kind of religious leaders we need today?
maya angelou: it is of particular interest to see the men who have been important in our struggle; that is, when one looks at dr. king, a preacher; and Andrew Young, a preacher; and jesse jackson, a preacher; and malcolm x, a preacher; or louis farrakhan, a preacher, to see that as a people we tend to be religious, whether we are following the buddha, or in some cases we are black jews or muslims or christians or shinto. Martin Luther King Jr. he always said that human beings are more alike than different.
you mentioned louis farrakhan. he has been a strong advocate of individual responsibility, but he has also been a highly controversial figure. How do you play the role of him?
maya angelou: mr. farrakhan has offended a lot of people. I understand that. but I am not the apologist for it, nor the person to interpret it. I think he is very good at playing himself. I think we talk about being American and we take it very lightly. we forget because probably none of us has lived in another country where, if you said something that the government did not agree with, they could shoot you at dawn. we take it for granted that we are Americans. Since Louis Farrakhan is American, he has the right to say what he believes to be true. What I would encourage young men and women to do is find that one speaker that really speaks to their hearts. try to find two or three who speak to your needs and whose tune you can hum, and listen to that speaker. I think people are controversial as long as their statements shake up and perhaps question the status quo. Martin Luther King Jr. It was controversial, you should know. and certainly malcolm x remained, until his death, a controversial figure. no one is going to be everything to everyone. you should know that going in.
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of debate, in court and elsewhere, about affirmative action policy. Is it possible that, by trying to level the playing field, you could exacerbate race relations by making white people feel disadvantaged?
maya angelou: i think affirmative action should be inclusive rather than exclusive. if it is inclusive, it watches over the rights of all people. creating fears about it is a means of keeping people apart. that’s just another way to separate and rule, divide and rule. It would be particularly interesting for today’s young men and women to re-read, if they haven’t read it, a slim volume by Machiavelli called The Prince. please read it carefully. it will be very important to you. you will see how divide and conquer, divide and conquer has been used since 1507 or so.
I think affirmative action is affirmative action. I think it’s good for the country. I think at first sight it seems to be good for minorities, but the truth is that it is good for the country. If the playing field were level for all people, then we wouldn’t need affirmative action, but it’s been terribly uneven, terribly unfair for centuries. and in an effort to level the playing field for all people, we need a head start and affirmative action and other attitudes and positions that really make us see our nation as our nation and see us at least fighting for the level for the that the ancestors said that they exerted themselves. affirmative action is very important, I think, and everyone should be affirmative about it, in black and white, I think.
It has been suggested that segregation in our society has shifted from the racial to the economic realm. Will education alleviate that inequality or is it built into our system?
maya angelou: Due to technological advances, society will need fewer and fewer unskilled workers. I do believe that the ways in which economies stabilize will depend on the young men and women of today, white and black, Spanish-speaking, Native American, Asian. all of you will influence the ways in which economies stabilize and continue to grow. keep asking the question and keep studying, see what has happened before. when the cotton king fell, what happened then? See how George Washington Carver introduced soybeans and peanuts and stabilized the economy after slavery. you can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. so I encourage you to see how the economy is now. See what’s happening with big corporations sending their business to Asia and South America, and what’s happened to the economy as a result.
do you think our free market system, capitalism itself, creates divisions and inequalities?
maya angelou: yes. absolutely. unfortunately, I can’t find many other “isms” that don’t do the same thing. we are so new, like a creature. I mean, we’re the last group formed, you know? and we just arrived. Reptiles were on this little blob of spit and sand for 200 million years, and we grew this opposite thumb about 25 million years ago. so we are very new, and very rude, and very rude and superficial. and the only way we know of to improve ourselves, for the most part, is to stand on someone else’s neck. not on his shoulders, but on his neck. and therefore I am not asking for patience. fortunately, it is given to the young to be impatient. if we weren’t, we’d still be in the trees. madame sun yat-sen said: “we are still in the trees”. luckily, young people are impatient. I ask for intelligent visualization, intelligent evaluation, intelligent analysis.
How do you think highly publicized events like the Rodney King beating have affected race relations?
maya angelou: i think one has to see what came first. i think the beating of rodney king was caused by the sad state of race relations in our country. I’m afraid that a number of people can be blamed for the sad state of race relations in our country, and I want to say that the leaders are responsible for a lot, because in many cases we have ceded our own independence and our own thoughts to the leaders. and if the leaders deceive us, unfortunately we tend to follow them. I hope that young men and women begin to think for themselves and take responsibility for their own thoughts. we have allowed ourselves this horrendous climate where synagogues are vandalized, Asians are beaten up, Native Americans are harassed, homosexuals are harassed, single white children are beaten up, rape is at a high level. Well, something terrible has happened, and it’s up to you.
You mentioned Native Americans. Do you see the conditions in the Indian reservations as a reflection, in some way, of the conditions in many cities in the interior?
maya angelou: my heart is so heavy when i see the reality of the indian reservation and as an american i know i am responsible too. i am an indian. I’m everything. At the same time, I feel the poverty and I really enjoy the woman who says “I want to raise my children in the traditional way, so that they love the land”. I see us in the most complex, enigmatic puzzle, which of course is life. the need we have to see ourselves in the other and admit what we see is so great. The Native American will only be able to break that cycle when society at large says, “These people are Americans and they deserve everything that all Americans have.” The African American can only break his cycle of poverty and violence and child abuse and premature death through drugs when society in general and the African American say: “I and they deserve everything, everything good.” and, until we do that, we are putting Band-Aids on the throat of someone who has just been cut. we’re just talking i hope the young men and women you’re watching today will take this time to try to talk together. many of you can barely articulate what you really feel and yet your hearts are full. speak, use language, men. use the language, women. that’s the only thing that really separates us from the rats and rhinos. it is the ability to say how we feel. “I believe this.” “I need this.” start talking please Well you know I love you and I’m really over it.
We hear a lot these days about so-called political correctness. the impulse to avoid offending is sometimes alleged to have distorted or suppressed free speech. What advice would you give young people who are faced with these kinds of concerns?
maya angelou: all those attitudes come in and out of style. do the right thing. you really know what is right. fashions can change. maybe you shouldn’t wear shorts or short skirts or go shirtless or tieless. that is a fashion, but what is proper, what is good to do, you already know. in truth, you know how to be kind, to be courteous, to be fair. you know it. so try, in all cases, black on black, black on white, white on white, white on black, Asian, Spanish-speaking, try to put the good word in your mouth. Get off on the right foot and you will always be politically correct.
do you think we’ve figured out dr. Martin Luther King’s dream?
maya angelou: i don’t know if we’ve really realized the dream yet. With the recent escalation of hate, violence and racism, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the dream has come true. I think that what we are obliged to do, rather, is to keep remembering the dream, and keep telling the children, all our children, that this is what has been dreamed for them. I think it is imperative that we take little black children and little white children and little Spanish-speaking children and little Asian children, take them into our laps, take them into our classrooms, take them into our homes, into churches and synagogues and temples and mosques, and tell them that this is their country, it belongs to everyone equally. this is important. tell them that they have already been paid. It’s very important that they know that in order for them to feel, “Oh, the well-being of this country depends on me thinking, and thinking deeply, and thinking right, and thinking right.” this is important.
do you think dr. Would Martin Luther King be satisfied with the current state of civil rights if he were alive today?
maya angelou: no, i think it would be as active in 1993 as it had been in 1963. in bad times, the only place for a moral person is on the walls, in jail or in exile. and so, certainly, when the rights of other human beings are denied, dr. king, and i would add malcolm x, and i would add medgar evers, and certainly some of the most active kennedy and other people, fannie lou hamer and others, would be marching or whatever was effective right now. Marching might not be the best for 1993. It might be necessary to come up with a new and different way of dealing with the inequalities in our society, but I’m sure the Reverend King would do what was necessary and what was effective.
many people say that things haven’t really changed since dr. king delivered the speech of him. Have things changed, and if so, how?
maya angelou: yes, things have changed. if we don’t say that things have changed, what we implicitly give children is the idea that with the lives and deaths of martin luther king, malcolm x, medgar evers, the two kennedys, these men and women, fannie lou hamer —that with their lives and deaths, they couldn’t make any difference. So that says to young people, well, they should think, “Well, these great people lived and they didn’t make any difference. what can i do?” we must not say that. it must be said that things have changed. they certainly have changed. look at our black congressional caucus. look at the black men and women who are mayors of the major cities of this country. oh No. In fact, including NASA and the fight to get into outer space, although one of our great astronauts was tragically killed in the accident, there was a black astronaut. One of the leading open heart surgeons in the country is an African American. Yes, things have changed. look at henry cisneros. it’s not enough, but we need to let the kids know, “yes, darling, there is a santa claus.”
We’ve been going through a tough time for young people of color. we read that there are as many young African-Americans in jail as there are in college. violence, particularly black-on-black violence, has been at extreme levels and very dangerous for children growing up in some neighborhoods. don’t you think dr. would the king be disappointed?
maya angelou: not just dr. King would be disappointed and hurt, but so would Malcolm X and W.E.B. dubois, and so would marcus garvey. carter g. woodson would be terribly disappointed, and so would a. Philip Randolph and Adam Clayton Powell. these men would be terribly disappointed, because they intended to leave ideals for young black men to emulate. not imitate, as much as appreciate. it’s very difficult for anyone to get past the propaganda being thrown over their heads.
if a person, any human being, is told quite often: “you are nothing. you are nobody you count for nothing. you don’t count for anything. you are less than human. I have no visibility of you. you are nothing”, if a person is told that often enough, the person eventually begins to believe it, and not just believe it, to say: “do you think I am nothing? I will show you where there is nothing”, and becomes even lower than he is accused of being. It’s very, very hard for a young black man anywhere to sit in his house, in his house, in his place of life, on the street, sometimes, and believe that this country cares about him. It is very difficult. So if the country doesn’t care, if his peers are sinking, then he says, “Well, they look like me. They are nothing so that proves I am nothing. in that case, their lives are worthless. and not only can I take their lives, but I can allow them to take mine.”
There have been articles in the New York Times in which 15- and 16-year-olds recite lists of their friends who have passed away. What are you doing to stop this violence?
maya angelou: if i knew that, i’d be on tv with bryant gumbel in the morning and with oprah winfrey tomorrow afternoon. I would stand on street corners and shout it, if I knew. All I know is that the responsibility is ours. it’s ours. we have to stop holding back and saying: “these are not my children”. we must stop it. I do what I do, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. if we all did everything we could do, we could save our nation, we could save our children.
Very often, people will try to respond to you on the level at which you speak to them. so if you say, “you’re not wonderful! you’re not gorgeous! my god, you are beautiful. oh, you’re so bright! people will try, even if they don’t, they will really try to elevate themselves. On the other hand, if you say, “You are a dog. you really are so short that you will never be anyone. in fact, now you are nobody and you never have been”, sooner or later, that person will respond at the level in which he or she is addressed. he will say, figuratively or literally, “let me show you where a dog is. let me show you where it’s really low. I’ll show you that.” the levels at which we approach young people, most of the time they will respond at those levels. let me tell you a story about someone who is known to many young men and women.
Years ago, I made a movie called poetic justice, and there was a young man, the first day, who cursed! I couldn’t believe it I walked behind him, I tried to ignore him. but on the second day, he and another young man, a black man, ran towards each other and were about to fight and hundreds of extras started running away, but a black man approached the two young men and I approached. I took one by the shoulder, I said: “let me talk to you”. he said, “yes these blah-blah…” I said, “let me talk to you, honey”. “Well, I tell you something, blah, blah…” I said, “no, let me talk to you, please.” and finally he calmed down and I said: “do you know how much they need you? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? Please honey, take a minute. don’t waste your life in a zoom.” I put my arm around him. he began to cry. the tears fell. that was tupac shakur. I took him, walked him to a small ravine and kept his back to people so they wouldn’t see him, and used my hands to dry his cheeks. I kept talking sweetly, sweetly. For the next week, while he was in that movie, every time it came by, he’d say, “so I said to these…” he’d say, “good morning, mrs. angelou.”
People will respond, and you should start them young. try to introduce courtesy into your mutual speech. you have no idea what it will do for the brother or sister you are talking to, and you surely have no idea what it will do for you. it will lift you up.
A lot of young people these days have access to guns, they have access to guns. something like 40 percent of all kids in a recent survey knew where they could get a gun if they wanted one. what do you think of that?
maya angelou: well, what i feel about teenagers, and adults as well, is that we need to get rid of guns. we should give ourselves a chance to survive. it is so easy to see violence on television and in movies, and to listen to it almost exalted. here is the terminator: “I can end your life. I can end your life. and then to think that they have a Saturday night special, or whatever they’re called, within their reach. Or one of the big magnums. They have that weapon within their reach. and someone says, “I don’t like you,” and this 14- or 15-year-old comes to mind, “I can fire you. boom!” childless. no, darlings. your lives are too precious. you can’t believe it right now. this is the tragedy. you know, they say young people have become cynical. darlings, let me tell you something.
one of the saddest things in the world is to see a cynical young man. because it means that he and she have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. it is very sad. we need you so desperately. not enough adults have told you, “you are all we have. everything we have done, negative and positive, has been for you. You are all there is to us.” and not enough adults tell you that. but we should tell you every morning. while you brush your teeth, while you put on your jeans, while you have breakfast, while you are on the bus, on the tram, on the subway. some adult should be telling you, “honey, you’re the best we’ve got and we need you.”
Sometimes young people complain about a kind of negative peer pressure, that their peers are trying to pull them down. Do you think that when young people resist that, they can have a positive influence on their peers?
maya angelou: it is true that you can use the positive element, as opposed to the negative; the glass half full, as opposed to the glass half empty. The only thing is, I’m sorry to say, ignorance is contagious. I could only wish intelligence was so contagious, but you have to work very hard to stay in a positive mode so that you can influence someone else. but when you help someone else, you’re surprised how much you help yourself.
I notice in airplanes: I have almost two million miles in delta, so you know I’m always airborne. I realize that if a person is very nervous and scared when there is turbulence, that is the moment when it happens, even though I am scared, if I go up to the person and say: “let me help you. listen, everything is fine, I’ve been through this many times”, that person will grab my arm or my hand and suddenly, I am free and I take away my fear. then it’s a pretty wonderful thing to help someone else. you have no idea how much you help yourself.
People will respond at the level at which they are addressed. If a young man or young woman is getting that empowerment, that backing, that support, “yeah, baby, you’re wonderful. mom is so proud of you. grandma is so proud of you. big mommy loves you big daddy loves you. all that, that continues in the church. I have not mentioned the church, but if you have the possibility to go to a church and work in the church, you will find yourself increased. that is, if you go to a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a synagogue, a mosque, try to find a place where there are other young people who are thinking positively. go to the catholic church if that is your heritage and that is what interests you. find someone so that some teacher in the church will say, “you know, I’m so proud of him. he used to come here, he just looked like I don’t know what. now he comes here, he looks so good, look at him. he looks at that good boy. and you will try to rise to it. so I encourage you, try to find a home in the church. I’m not saying join, that depends on you and your god. but try to find a home in the church so you can get more corroboration, more fortification.
Over the years, there has been a shift in the public discussion of issues in the black community. Instead of describing them as American problems, as national problems, some people talk about “self-destruction of the African American community.” Does this change in hue bother you? discussions of single motherhood or black crime are often framed in this way, as “blacks ruining themselves.”
maya angelou: well, it’s devastating. it’s so painful to see it, hear it and be a victim of it. because there’s hardly any black family that can’t tell a story of someone they’re related to, either being victimized or victimizing. but black on black crime is the result. Nothing comes from nothing. it is the result of a larger society being maliciously negligent.
There is no such thing as “benign neglect.” if you neglect a child, that is evil. that is an active action. and people in the black community, and the black community as a whole, have been victims of neglect. Now, there are always people in any society who may, by virtue of energy, the good fortune of being in a particular place, perhaps intelligence, though not always intelligence. that person, or those people, can scale that ice wall; get support points; it hits pitons and climbs up somehow. and of course, when that person goes up, society in general tends to look at them and say, “well, see, he did it. Why do not you do it? to everyone else who wasn’t lucky, they didn’t have that particular blessing to be in that place at the time, they didn’t have all that energy, but they deserve to reach that high level just as much as anyone else.
so I can’t just leave black-on-black crime in the black community alone. I know that no black man owns the jets that bring crack and cocaine from South America or Europe or the Middle East. they don’t bring it but somehow he finds his way into the black community. at some point, a thinker must think: “why is this? who brings it, who really benefits economically?” it’s not the black community.
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the number of single, African-American, poor women who give birth at an age where they haven’t completed their own education yet, they don’t have their feet. financially on the ground. what do you have to say to girls in that situation, girls who become women when everything around them is falling apart?
maya angelou: well, first, if possible, avoid having a child out of wedlock, or avoid having a child when you’re too young. I have been there. I was fortunate to have a son when he was 16 years old. I had just finished — I finished high school three weeks before my son was born. now, here was my blessing. I refused to go to welfare; I refused to accept money from my mother; and when my son was three months old, I moved out of my mother’s house and got a room with cooking privileges. I forced myself to read. read. and forced myself to work. I have taken my son all over the world. he finished secondary school in egypt, where i was working; he got his first degree from the university of ghana where i was working. I realize this, and this is what I have to say to young women who already have children: remember that that is someone. that’s not just an appendage. It’s not just someone you clip to your hip and hold in your arms. that’s a person, a person who can have the most horrible life if you’re not careful, or a person who can have the most glorious life if you’re careful. just remember it’s someone. and that is someone’s son: your son. and that you are someone’s son. so try to get rich. don’t take “no.” don’t take low and under no circumstances should you accept being mistreated by anyone, including life.
what do you say to young black women who see black men dying on the streets, getting involved with drugs, going to jail? sometimes they get discouraged and start looking towards other men of different races if they see their brothers going in the wrong direction.
maya angelou: well, i encourage you first to do everything you can for your siblings, always. because every black woman has a black father, a black grandfather, probably some black brothers, black nephews, black uncles, and maybe some good black friends and hopefully some black lovers. I encourage you to have the courage to pull a person aside and try to put your hand on them, someone you know, and say, “You know, I care about you, and I’m not the only one. You know, if we lose you, we can lose control of life. Talk to him. talk to her do your best.
now, there’s this. it is very difficult to maintain a loving relationship, even if you live next door to someone and their parents and your parents have known each other forever and went to the same church, and even went to the same school. it is very difficult for adults to maintain respect and romance so that a love story can last for years. if you fall in love with someone of another race, it is more difficult, because you have to translate. I mean, you can’t say, “um-um-um!” because the person of the other race says, “exactly what did you mean?” so there are things that make it a little more difficult. and, of course, then people of our race begin to wonder, “are you talking in black and sleeping in white?” etc. the only thing you must remember is that you must have the courage to love.
More and more black youth are living and raising children outside of traditional African-American communities. What do you say to the young black mother that she wants to expose her daughter or son to that tradition when she’s not around her?
maya angelou: well, that’s a wonderful question. I would do a couple of things. I would find a black church. I would go to church once every two months. I’m not saying join church, go to church. after about three or four visits, people will start saying, “well, how are you? what’s your name? what is the name of this cute little baby? etc. And before you know it, you’ll meet someone your age, your economic group, your educational group, and you’ll be exchanging numbers. that’s my best suggestion.
and the second is, get the black man’s poetry or one of those anthologies. just go to the librarian and ask her to find an anthology of African-American poetry. her read her poetry, when she’s sleeping, when she’s sitting there, when she’s lying there humming to herself, read her some poetry. she tries to read him in the dialect.
That’s wonderful advice. there is not a city in the world where you cannot get a book. the way you talk about books, mrs. Angelou, I suspect they have been your friends at a time when almost no one else was.
maya angelou: yeah, they’re my friends. and I have thousands of them.
and if you don’t have money to buy, you can always borrow.
maya angelou: go to the library. but you know, I feel uncomfortable and insecure when I don’t have rice in my house, or tomato and onion paste, or cooking oil, or books. I just feel that, wow! anything can happen.
When you love books, it’s hard to live without them. even when you don’t have money to buy food, you don’t want to sell it.
maya angelou: oh no! oh no no!
Is there a poem or verse that you have used to sustain you through challenges, adversity or difficulties?
maya angelou: well yeah. some of them are mine of course. “and I still get up”, which is a very popular poem of mine in the country. and many people use it. a lot of black people and a lot of white people use it. which begins:
“you can write me down in history
with your bitter and twisted lies;
you can step on me in the very dirt;
but still, like the dust, I will rise.”
so there’s that poem, and it goes on. and then a poem just for women, which is called “phenomenal women”, and I love the poem. I wrote it for black, white, Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish women. i wrote it for native american women, aleuts, eskimo ladies. I wrote it for all women. very fat, very thin, pretty, simple women. Now, I know you guys are great, but you have to write your own poem.
this one says:
“many people wonder
where is my secret.
I’m not cute and I’m not tailored
the size of a model.
when I try to show them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say: it’s within my arms reach,
the span of my hips,
the step of my step,
the curve of my lips.
I’m a woman, phenomenally!”
dr. angelou, what advice do you have for young poets? How can they start taking their work to the public?
maya angelou: well, you could read your poetry in church. You could offer to give a poetry reading at an elementary, middle, or high school in your area. If you belong to a church, say, on a Sunday afternoon, “I’d like to read my poetry,” and then go to school. go to the English department and say “I would like to read my poetry, please, in some assembly”. test, always start at home. This is my encouragement to all writers, start at home. all the virtues and all the vices begin at home and then spread abroad. if you live in orangeburg and people start to like orangeburg, before you know it, someone in columbia, south carolina will say, “why don’t you come over here and read your poetry?” and then someone in winston-salem, where i live, might say, “come to north carolina and read your poetry,” but it starts at home.
Many teachers who work with minority and disadvantaged students want to teach their students self-esteem and pride in their place of origin. poetry has a part to play in that. Many young people are fascinated by rap music, and that doesn’t have to be a negative. Do you have any ideas on how to use that interest in rap to lead them to poetry and pride in their roots?
maya angelou: absolutely. Let’s take “A Black Love Song” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Mr. Dunbar wrote this poem in 1892. It could have been written last week for Queen Latifah, or M.C. hammer or l.l. cool j, or whoever. just listen to a couple of lines. the man is speaking, but this is a woman’s poem. says:
“I saw my wife at home last night.
jump back, baby, jump back.
He took her hand and squeezed it hard.
jump back, baby, jump back.
I heard her sigh that little sigh,
I saw that light shine in his eyes,
I saw a smile fly by.
I say jump back, baby, jump back!”
wow! and just keep going would please you infinitely. and also, get paul laurence dunbar’s “little brown baby” and let some of the girls do it.
“little brown baby with bright eyes,
come over to your dad and sit on his knee.
what have you been doing, sir? making sand cakes?
look at that bib. you’re just as dirty as me.”
see? give them that. and give them my poem “weekend glory”.
both malcolm x and martin luther king believed in something you alluded to, which was building positive racial pride, a positive sense of self, without the need to put others down. a genuinely strong self is not based on putting another person down in order to feel strong. where can today’s kids get the support to keep looking for positive options, when there are so many negative influences out there?
maya angelou: well again, I put the weight on us.
we, the teachers, those of us who are the television producers, I mean, and the presenters, the interviewers, the teachers, the parents, have to broaden our thinking. we must do to include all children, you see? there are asian children watching. those children need to know that they have already been paid. they need to be reminded that in the 1850s Asians came to this country and built the railroads. they need to know that for centuries, that is, for decades, they could not legally bring their mates. they need to know that, that they have been paid. they need to be encouraged to read kenzaburo oe and kobo abe, and janice mirikitani, and maxine hong kingston, ishiguru. they need to be encouraged to read, so they can say, “oh, wait a minute. I am not here by anyone’s consent. this is my country.” see?
Spanish-speaking children, we must remind them of the beauty and poetry in their own language, and that in fact this is proof of their worth and the worth of their language. I would read to them from Garcia Lorca and Carlos Fuentes and Octava Paz, so they could get a sense of themselves, and start reading poetry aloud right now. read garcia lorca aloud.
Let’s talk about multicultural learning in the classroom. We often hear that if we learn about each other’s cultures, we will all get along better. but many people fear that learning about other cultures will somehow diminish or devalue their own.
maya angelou: truth is very important. no matter how negative it is, it is imperative that you learn the truth, not necessarily the facts. I mean, that, that can come, but the facts can stand up to the truth and almost obscure the truth. it is imperative that students learn the truth of our history. no matter how sad, no matter how biting, no matter how terrible, we must know it. the only way to get out of something is to go all the way through it. you must see it, read it, study it, and then you can go through it, see? it is imperative that young white men and women study black American history. it is imperative that blacks and whites study Asian American history. you should know that the asians built these railways, that they were brought here, as maxine hong kingston said, to gold mountain in the 1850s, in the 1840s, unable to legally bring his companions for eight decades. it is important that you know, otherwise how can you make friends? only like make friends, see?
You need to know what happened to the pogroms in Russia and Poland. you should know, because you are living next door, being taught by, or going to teach or marry someone who is a descendant of that people group. you need to know, do not hesitate to know the most painful aspects of our history, understand it.
So many young people alive today have never seen the effects of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but have read many of their writings. you and other writers give them insight into what they need to know. Do you see it that way?
maya angelou: well, we each stepped on each other’s shoulders, see? So you stand on my shoulders i stand on the shoulders of martin and malcolm, and on the shoulders of medgar evers. and they stopped at dr. dubois and marcus garvey, see? then we make a wonderful pyramid. That is why it is always important to know that you are in your place, because someone went before you and paid for you. A new book about the nine kids who desegregated Little Rock High School is coming soon.
It’s called Brave Warriors Don’t Cry, or something like that. It’s coming out in a few months. It’s an amazing book, and I would encourage every young man and woman, everyone, just to read what it’s like to be 15 and try to go to a school where people yell at you and yell and throw things and say how horrible you are and what you stink and then persevere, continue somehow, keep your head up, chin out, you know, and keep going. It’s a wonderful book.
if dr. king had not existed in the 1950s and 1960s, if he had not been in the leadership of the fight, would someone else have come along? where would that leadership have come from?
maya angelou: martin luther king, jr. always brought someone. It’s important to see that Martin Luther King and other leaders did this: current leaders, contemporary leaders, and ancient leaders. if it was jesus christ bringing with him 12 men, 12 disciples who became apostles, who later kept the idea. all along, there were men of leadership and women with leadership qualities who brought someone with them, always, helping them to see.
It’s not impossible to become Martin Luther King, to become J.F. kennedy, to become mahatma gandhi, it is not impossible to become barbara jordan or eleanor roosevelt. that is not impossible, it is within your reach, absolutely. those were human beings. So if you approach it with that idea, if you approach the future with the idea that I’m up to it, I’m a man or a woman of my time, and I’m up to it. I will study a lot, I will pray a lot and all that, but I am up to the job. If you do that, then in case the contemporary leaders fall, there will be someone to take their place, you see? that’s what’s important.
Do you think there will be other great leaders like Martin Luther King in the near future? where will they come from?
maya angelou: i don’t think the world ended, tragic as it was, when the reverend king was assassinated. young men and women are now preparing for the burden and glory of being great. and you can’t tell where the person will come from. she may be growing up in a condo in hilton head or he may be growing up in a log cabin in charlotte, north carolina, or in virginia where you are. he can be Asian, he can be white, he can be black, she can be Native American, she can be Spanish speaking, she can be blonde, she can be black. she will be american that will be hot, yes? she will be an American, trying to live at the highest level. so no, don’t be discouraged. just believe yourself. have the courage to invent yourself.
Are there women in particular that you see as potential leaders in our country today?
maya angelou: yes, there are wonderful women, and there are young women right now who will be senators and congressmen in the future. someone is going to be, and those young people are somewhere. So why shouldn’t it be you? I really don’t like divisions. I dislike them from the bottom of my heart. all comparisons get hateful at some point. So, for women and men, what you have to do, as young people, is set your goals beyond your reach, not so far away that you get frustrated, understand, and think, “I’ll never make it.” but a little further, just an inch further and keep stretching towards it, towards that goal.
To young African Americans who want to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King or yourself, what kind of advice could you give them, to make that young man or woman a better person, so that they can become a better person? to help the next man.
maya angelou: It tries to preserve some of the best parts of African-American culture, some of the sweetest parts. the fact that people lower their voices and become almost musical when talking to a friend, a preacher or a teacher. they say, “hey! how are you’?” remember that. keep the melody in your mind and in your spirit. it will keep you tender in hard times, which is very important. the other thing to do is read.
read endlessly. read. Go to a library and make a list. say, “I will read from a to br”. read. All knowledge, my dear young lady, all knowledge is a bargaining chip, depending on the market. read. put it in the old bean. you will be surprised how it will serve you.
dr. angelou, are you encouraged by what you hear from today’s youth?
maya angelou: oh yeah yeah. lift my heart those are the heroes and heroines, those young people. I encourage all of you to speak more as well, so that your speech will be clearer. I would ask you to talk more among yourselves and read. listen, this is a very good track, a piece of advice: go to your room, close the door and read something aloud, just for you, just so you can hear how the voice can carry. get up, physically, so that a lot of air enters your lungs, and talk, talk. one of the reasons we wanted to hear what dr. The king had to say was because of his eloquence, because of his dedication and because of the way he presented her. so go to your rooms, young men and women, black and white, come in, close the door and read aloud. read from thomas paine, so to speak. read from martin luther king, so to speak. Just read, read Barbara Jordan’s speeches out loud.
She goes into her rooms and closes the doors just to hear the language, just to hear what it might sound like. close the door and tell people, “I am studying”, which is true, you will be studying. so try to read all the poetry, African American, Native American, Spanish American, Asian American, White American, read it all and read it out loud so you can learn to love the sound of your own voice and the voice of the poet. if you take the melody in your mouth now, by the time you’re 26, someone will come up to you and say, “I want to work with you. please help me, give me a chance.” try poetry, always, to elevate yourself.
what is the value to others of young women or young men who know how to stay well?
maya angelou: well, when you know your worth, not asking, but knowing, you walk into a room with a particular power. when you know your worth, you don’t have to raise your voice, you don’t have to become rude, you don’t have to become vulgar; you just are. and you are like the sky, like the air, like wet water. You don’t have to protest.
when do you think dr. Will the king’s dream come true?
maya angelou: it’s not something that “comes” true. we have to make it happen. we have to work on it. It’s not something we can sit on and say, “Whew! comes, around the mountain. no, no, we have to go out there and get our hands on it and build it up, flesh it out, make it real. we have to do that. dreamed the dream it’s up to those of us who remain here to make it happen.
As we speak, it has been approximately 40 years since brown vs. board of education, the supreme court’s decision that schools would not be segregated. even now, we still have the problem of schools being vastly unequally resourced. Do you see that changing in our lives? so that everyone receives the same level of attention from the teacher, equipment, books, and security?
maya angelou: yes, but we have to want it. I don’t mean to say that we want it; I don’t want to say that I like it. we have to need it, understand that we need it. There is a Zen story about a man who studied with a teacher or a lover for a while and said to the teacher: “I want the truth.” and the teacher said, “okay”. and lived with him, and sent him and cut down trees. he said, “now, cut down trees for a while.” so the partner cut trees for about six or eight months. and he finally told the teacher: “I have been asking you for the truth.” he said, “oh, that’s right.” and he said: “you haven’t told me anything”. he said, “so it is.” So he said, “Now, go out and turn all those trees into charcoal.” so he did that for about six months, and the man never spoke to him. finally, at the end, he said: “listen, teacher, I’ll leave it. I told you I wanted the truth. the teacher said, “let me walk with you a path.” he walked with him until they came to a bridge. Beneath it, there was running water. the teacher gave him a push. he passed the guy fell once. he said, “I can’t swim!” down again, “I can’t swim!” the third time, the teacher held him up to the side and said, “now when you want the truth the same way you wanted that breath of air, you’ve got it.”
Now, that may sound very strange, but when you want it, when you want it, you’ve already started to get it. so one of the things that i would say to young men and women, to uphold the legacy of martin luther king, jr. alive, is to want it, to love it. You’ll have a piece of him. so get as much, admire as much, and build on that. build on it in all the ways your fathers and your teachers and preachers and rabbis and imams tell you. continue to build little by little, inch by inch.
dr. angelou, it was a pleasure talking to you today.
maya angelou: and my thanks to the achievement academy. I am very proud of this organization to which I belong. I’m very proud of it.