Conversation with Maya Angelou
By Marianne Schnall
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Maya Angelou is
an accomplished poet, an award-winning writer, a journalist,
an activist, a performer, a dancer, an actress, a director,
and a teacher. She is also a three-time Grammy Award winner
for her autobiographical spoken-word recordings. Born in St.
Louis, she was raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and then went to
San Francisco. She lives in Harlem, NY, and Winston-Salem,
NC. In addition to her bestselling autobiographies, beginning
with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she is the author
to my Daughter; several poetry collections, including Shall
Not Be Moved and Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?; and
a number of books for young readers, including Kofi and
His Magic; My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken
and Me; and the Maya's World series.
WITH MARIANNE SCHNALL (12/10/08)
Marianne Schnall: At the web site I run, Feminist.com,
one of our most popular pages is your poem Phenomenal
Woman. I was thinking about how you have often reached out
to empower and inspire women in particular. What made you decide
to write this book, Letter
to My Daughter?
Maya Angelou: Well, I had started about 20 years ago making
notes about subjects I wanted to talk over with Oprah, just one
liners or two liners, about things that the next time we got
together I wanted to be sure I tell her my thinking on this or
that. And I threw all of that into something I call “Works in
Progress” – it’s a box called "WIP". And last year
I went to see what did I have in there, along with suggestions
for poems, songs and I looked and I thought, “Hmm, there’s an
essay here” and “Hmm, there’s an essay there”. Hmm. [laughs]
I was encouraged by the notes themselves to write some words
to some women who expect me - I think, from their letters to
me - expect me to have something wise, or at any rate, considered,
to say about issues they have obliged to confront. So that’s
why I wrote the book.
MS: What would you say is the essence or the message of the
book? What are you hoping that readers will come away with?
MA: Well, hmm. I tried not to say what I had learned.
I notice in a couple places, I did. But I think that each of
us is so much alike, and yet at the same time we are so different,
and I have a feeling that if you encountered difficulty, and
I with my age encountered the same difficulty, I would respond
one way, and you would respond another. Neither would be right
or wrong. It’s just that each of us is courageous, and that’s
what I encourage, courage, and the courage to see, and the courage
to say to oneself what one has seen. Don’t be in denial.
MS: I have two young daughters myself. What message would
you most want to instill in young girls? What do you wish you
had known as a child?
MA: That one, courage. Also, I encourage courtesy. To
accept nothing less than courtesy, and to give nothing less than
courtesy. If we accept being talked to any kind of a way, then
we are telling ourselves we are not quite worth the best. And
if we have the effrontery to talk to anybody with less than courtesy,
we tell ourselves and the world we are not very intelligent.
MS: Just yesterday I interviewed Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.
At one point she talked about the importance of knowing yourself.
She said, “Sometimes we become bound by other people’s thoughts
because we are not sure about ourselves” and that “when you know
who you are you are free.” Do you agree? And how does one go
about discovering who we are, and living ones life authentically,
with so many stereotypes and influences on us?
MA: Well, I think that we see how we can fall and rise.
You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.
It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we
can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and
I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world,
and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked
down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say,
hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody
jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage
in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand
up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are.
MS: I remember you had said in Letter
to My Daughter, “You may not control all the events that
happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."
MA: Exactly. Exactly. It’s raining like buckets here today.
If friends were coming here for lunch, and especially if it was
someone who was a fashionista, and she had plans to wear that
particular costume for that particular period, and stepped out
the door to encounter these sheets of rain, you may have to step
back in to change what you are wearing. Or, get an umbrella and
continue knowing that your hair is going to either get very curly
or very straight. So you have to deal with what you encounter.
But you must not be reduced. And so a way not to be reduced is
don’t whine! Don’t let the incidents which take place in life
bring you low. And certainly don’t whine. You can be brought
low, that’s OK, but don’t be reduced by them. Just say, that’s
life. And I’ve done that many times. And before I die I will
probably have the occasion to do that many more! [laughs]
MS: We also should make sure to celebrate when wonderful things
do happen. I saw some of your emotional appearances after Barack
Obama’s win. Did you ever imagine that you would live long enough
to witness that?
MA: Never. Never. And yet somewhere, obviously I must
have known. I know that my people did, because they couldn’t
have survived slavery without having hope that it would get better.
And there’s some songs from the 19th and 18th century that say
[sings], “By and by, by and by, I will lay down, this heavy load.”
And I mean, so many songs that spoke of hope and understand it
better by and by. Amazing songs. So that the slaves, just knowing
that he, she, did not have the right legally to walk within one
inch away from where the slave owner dictated, and yet the same
person, wrote and sang with fervor, “If the lord wants somebody,
here am I, send me.” It’s amazing.
MS: It really is. It feels like a new world.
MA: Yes, indeed.
MS: And there’s something also beautiful about the fact that
Obama was not just elected, but elected decisively across racial,
and socio-economic and cultural groups and that we all celebrated
in his win.
MA: Exactly. Exactly.
MS: How do you feel when you look out at the world today?
MA: I feel very hopeful. I feel very hopeful, very expectant.
I’m looking forward to it.
MS: There seems to be a growing movement around issues such
as anti-war sentiment, awareness about global warming, and world
poverty - a growth in awareness and compassion and a sense of
responsibility – do you think humanity is experiencing an evolutionary
shift to a new paradigm?
MA: I think so. I think we are making it very clear to
people, whether they want to hear it or not, or whether they
would like to think of this as some fluke, just sort of a drop
in this misery of history – wrong, wrong. People are saying:
this is what I will stand for. And I will not stand for any less
than this. It’s amazing. We are growing up. We are growing up!
Out of the idiocies - the ignorances of racism and sexism and
ageism and all those ignorances.
MS: What do you think is the root cause of all the problems
we have in the world today?
MA: Well, ignorance of course. But most, polarization.
You see, it’s a long time arranging this sort of condition. And
it will not be over in one term, or even two. But we are on the
right road. If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you
must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman.
And won’t mind the enslavement. The second thing you must do
is convince your allies that the person is subhuman so that you
have some support. But the third and the unkindest cut of all
is to convince that person that he, she, is not quite a first
class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator
can go back years later and ask, “Why don’t you people like yourselves
more?” You see? It’s been true for women, it’s been true for
immigrants, it’s been true for Asians, it’s been true for Spanish-speaking
people. So now we have to undo. We know this – and we have to
undo these lessons which have been learned by all of us. And
not just taught to us – but we’ve learned them. And so it will
be no small matter. But we can undo it. We can learn to see each
other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human
beings are more alike than we are unalike.
MS: You talk about that so much in your book – and yet there
are still so many ways we divide ourselves, by religion, race,
gender, sexuality, nationality – are you hopeful that humanity
will ever come to see ourselves as one human family?
MA: Yes, but it will be a long time. I think so. But
that’s all right – it’s a wonderful goal to be working towards.
MS: I heard you deliver an incredibly inspiring speech at Omega
Institute and V-Day’s "Women & Power" conference,
of which Feminist.com was
a partner. Do you feel like women around the world are awakening
to a sense of their own power and a need in the world for their
MA: Yes, I think so. I think so. We can see, from California
to New York, from Maine to Florida, Seattle to New Mexico – everywhere
there are women’s groups. Everywhere there are women who have gotten
together to examine global warming, and women who have gotten together
to prepare each other for single parenting – there are women who
have come together to be supportive to those whose mates are in prison,
male or female, partners are in prison. All sorts of gatherings of
women. I mean, I’m just celebrating my 80th year on this planet,
and I look back 50 years ago and there was nothing like that. Nothing.
There were African American groups, and the white groups really had
more to do socializing, and fashion and what is trendy, I mean other
than the DAR and that group of people. But for the most part, there
were very few betterment groups, really for the betterment of the
woman who had nothing, the white woman in Northern Virginia, or West
Virginia in the mountains, to live on what is to be scraped from
strip mining. You know, really. Or the poor Asians, the poor Hispanic
women. But now, everywhere I go, there are groups! And that’s very
MS: There seems to be a growing realization that empowering
women helps us all, and also about the importance of nurturing
“feminine” values, even in men.
MA: Absolutely. A few weeks ago I talked to my editor.
And we’ve been together 40 years. And so I asked him how his
wife was, since she’d been a little sick and they live in New
York. And he said, well she’s down in North Carolina. And I said,
“She’s in North Carolina, doing what?” I mean, I lived in North
Carolina, why on earth... And he said, “Oh, she’s over on the
coast. She’s doing some door-to-door volunteering for Obama.”
Now, he doesn’t know it, but he’s a man with certain control
needs – but he said, this is her decision. And they’re both white
Americans. And he’s my age, and she’s about 20 years younger,
in the fifties I guess. But she decided that’s what she wanted
to do. I never heard her speak up like that! But that is a part
of the need for, and the offering of, the women, the female’s
assessment, females’ advice, females’ wisdom.
MS: I know you have gone through some dark times in your life,
but you have accomplished so much and are such a beacon of light
and inspiration. Where does your own strength and courage come
MA: Well, I had a fabulous grandmother. And my mother.
I have some sister friends. And it’s very hard for me, as I approach
the holidays because sister friends who meant the world to me have
died and we always at least got together during the summer, and then
at Christmas. But I have had them. I mourn only because I wish I
still had them. But I have had them and they have influenced and
strengthened my life. And when I want to think about what would be
the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, the wise thing to do,
I can just think of my grandmother. I can always hear her say, “Now
sister, you know what’s right. Just do right!”
MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at
life that guides you?
MA: Yes. All of us knows, not what is expedient, not what
is going to make us popular, not what the policy is, or the company
policy – but in truth each of us knows what is the right thing
to do. And that’s how I am guided.
MS: What advice would you give to people who are going through
something painful or are feeling frustrated or depressed – what
would you say to give them hope?
MA: Well, I would say, look what you’ve already come through!
Don’t deny it. You’ve already come through some things, which
are very painful. If you’ve been alive until you’re 35, you have
gone through some pain. It cost you something. And you’ve come
through it. So at least look at that. And have a sense to look
at yourself and say, “Well, wait a minute. I’m stronger than
I thought I was.” One of my friends who’s dead is a woman named
Jessica. She’s a sister friend to me. And she told me about 25
years ago – I was bemoaning that my writing just didn’t seem
to have this melody to it, and was treating myself to a little
pity party. And Jessica said, “Maya, just take any of your books
out of the library right now and just sit down and have a glass
of wine. And open it up anywhere.” And I did that, and within
15 minutes I thought, “I can write!” What? See? So we need to
not be in denial about what we’ve done, what we’ve come through.
It will help us if we all do that.
MS: Speaking of your writing, you’ve expressed yourself through
so many different forms of art: dancing, acting, writing, poetry
– what is the role or value of art in our society, as a form
of media and human expression?
MA: Well, it reminds us that we are not just flesh and
blood. And that our hungers are not going to be set aside as just
flesh and blood. That indeed we have souls. And if a person is religious,
I think it’s good, it helps you a bit. But if you’re not, at least
you can have the sense that there is a condition inside you which
looks at the stars with amazement and awe. That listens to water
with a river flowing, or water falling in rain and is lifted up by
that and listens to a wonderful singer, wonderful musicians, listens
to maybe Duke Ellington or Frank Sinatra or listens to Odetta and
Mary J. Blige. Yes, and thinks whoo! And thinks, yes, hmm, all right
now. My soul has been washed. I feel better, I feel stronger. Listen
to some good poetry. You see? It keeps us from thinking we are only
what our blatant appetites describe us as.
MS: What advice would you have for the budding writer or poet
MA: I would say, find something you like, go into a room,
close the door and read it aloud. Read it aloud. Everybody in
the world who likes dance can see dance, or hear music, or see
art, or admire architecture - but everybody in the world uses
words who is not a recluse or mute. But the writer has to take
these most common things, more common than musical notes or dance
positions, a writer has to take some adverbs, and verbs and nouns
and ball them up together and make them bounce.
MS: What do you think is the source of your own inspiration
MA: Well, hmm. I’m a religious woman. And I feel I have
responsibility. I have no modesty at all. I’m even afraid of
it – it’s a learned affectation and it’s just stuck on me like
decals. Now I pray for humility because that comes from inside
out. And what humility does for one, is it reminds us that there
are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what
I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone
else who has yet to come, but who may be here and needs me.
MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?
MA: I wish that we could look into each other’s faces,
in each other’s eyes, and see our own selves. I hope that the children
have not been so scarred by their upbringing that they only think
fear when they see someone else who looks separate from them.
For more information: Maya
Angelou's Official site
©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this
interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne
Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.
Her new book based on her
interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women
Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010.