You’ve spoken about the music and the content of the “I Have a Dream” speech as two different things to emulate. How do you see the relation of style and substance in rhetoric, or in writing?
Maya Angelou: The substance is the issue which most moves you. If it is a love for civil rights, then that is the substance. How you get it over — you should be able to change style the same way you change your jackets. That is to say, in one circumstance, you might need to preach. In another circumstance, to get your idea over. In another, you may have to tell a joke. In another, you may have to sing some long, lonesome blues. But you should be able to change that; be intelligent enough to know where to put what, so that you don’t try to swim on the stove. Do you understand? That is it, and you don’t try to tap dance in the swimming pool. So then, when you have the substance, you decide what style shall I deliver this? In which style shall I deliver this? Shall I be quiet and put my hand on my cheek and act as if I am deep? Or shall I tell a joke or shall I make myself a buddy to someone in order to get my substance over?
Your 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 I hope still many. Certainly, working for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was very important for me. Developing a brother/sister relationship with Malcolm X has been very important to me. Being friends with Dr. Johnnetta Cole has been very important to me. The sisters and brothers that you meet give you the materials which your character uses to build itself. It is said that some people are born great, others achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. In truth, the ways in which your character is built have to do with all three of those. Those around you, those you choose and those who choose you. Let me add this, too, I am a very religious person, so it is the presence of God, the constant unwavering, unrelenting presence of God which continues to help me to keep a character which I am proud to show to young men and women. And I will be, I hope, not too ashamed to meet my maker in the final move.
Was Dr. King the person who had the greatest influence on you?
Maya Angelou: He was one of those persons, certainly, but my sister, my grandmother and uncle who raised me, who taught me, by their actions, that it was good to be good, that it was nice to be nice, influenced me more than any other persons have since that time. My family and the family friends continue to inform me that the character I have become will reflect the characters I have been around.
Were you always aware of your own talents? As a girl, you were silent for so many years.
Maya Angelou: I was a mute from the time I was seven and a half until I was almost 13. I didn’t speak. I had voice, but I refused to use it. My grandmother, who was raising me in a little village in Arkansas, used to tell me, “Sister, mamma don’t care about what these people say: ‘You must be an idiot, you must be a moron’. Mamma don’t care, sister. Mamma know, when you and the Good Lord get ready, you’re gonna be a preacher.” Well, I used to sit and think to myself, “Poor, ignorant mamma. She doesn’t know. I will never speak, let alone preach.” It has devolved upon me to — not preach, as it were — but to write about morals, about hope, about desolation, about pain and ecstasy and joy and triumph in the human spirit. So it seems to me, that is my calling. And I write about it for all of us, because I know that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
How old were you when you finally realized your talents?
Maya Angelou: I still have not realized my talents. I believe that each of us comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory. So at this wonderful, young age of 65, I don’t know yet what the Lord has for me to do. I try to live up to the energy and to the calling, but I wouldn’t dare say I have even scratched the surface yet.
Did you experience racial discrimination growing up? Have you ever been discriminated against or mistreated because of your color?
Maya Angelou: Yes, I have. Yes. A black person grows up in this country — and in many places — knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue. Also, it can be as dangerous as too much salt. I think that you must struggle for betterment for yourself and for everyone. It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air; we all have it or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.
Was there a first time that was more salient 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 that little village in Arkansas, and there was a movie house downtown. “Downtown” consisted of one paved street. There was a movie house, and the girl who worked selling tickets lived on land my grandmother owned. And I knew for a fact that she and her family hadn’t paid any rent for three years. They lived behind the town, on our land. I went up to get a ticket. I may have been about eight or nine. My grandmother was very religious and didn’t believe in the movies, but once she allowed me and my brother — every now and again. We went up to get a ticket. And the girl took my dime, and she wouldn’t put her hand on it. I put it down. She had a cigar box, and she took a card and raked my dime into the cigar box. Now, the white kids got tickets. She took their money, and she gave them little stubs. She didn’t give us anything. She just motioned, which meant that we had to go up the side steps, outside steps, and crawl through a really crummy little door, and sit perched 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’ll be going to the movies a lot.” So I decided to boycott the movies. That was the first time I can remember, and I must have been about eight or nine. But mostly, we lived on the black side of town, and we didn’t see other people very 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’s always been the genius in my family. My family came closest to making a genius when they made my brother. He was a year and a half older than I. He told me they were stupid, they were ignorant, they were foolish. I agreed with all that, because I knew he was smart, he would know, but it didn’t diminish the hurt.
Did you take it personally? Did you know it was because you were African American?
Maya Angelou: Yes, but that’s personally. Absolutely. I knew that if I was blonde and white-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 past it? How do you get rid of it?
Maya Angelou: The truth is, you cannot get rid of it. It is there. What you can do is put positive things in there along with the negative. But it’s a given that you will remember that the rest of your life.
There is a poem. Listen to this. It was written by Countee Cullen. It’s called “Incident.”
“Once, riding in old Baltimore,
Head filled, heart filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean keep looking straight at me.
Now, I was eight, and very small, and she was no whit bigger.
And so, I smiled, but she stuck out
Her tongue, and called me “nigger, nigger, nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December.
And of all the things that happened there,
That’s all that I remember.”
How can young people keep their sense of self-worth and not give in to anger or self-destructiveness when they’re confronted with hatred or even violence?
Maya Angelou: The most difficult thing in the world, it seems to me, is to realize that I am a child of God; to keep that in my mind all the time. There is one thing more difficult. And that is that I have to remember that the brute is also a child of God.
Do you think prejudice is based in fear? Do you think frightened people need to demean others, to feel strong themselves?
Maya Angelou: People feel guilty. And guilt is stymieing. Guilt immobilizes. Guilt closes the air ducts and the veins, and makes people ignorant. And so, because they are 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 they say, “I’m going to smash your face. 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’s very hard to hate someone if you look them in the eye and recognize them as a human being.
Maya Angelou: Ah! You must add that: “And recognize them as a human being.” Because people have lynched people, and people threw people in the gas ovens, and they were looking them in the eye. But in order to empathize, you have to accept that “This person is as human as I.” Once you do that, it’s very hard to impose cruelty on another human being.
It’s been said that “The strong man or woman is the man or woman who can stand up for his rights without hitting back.” Is that your feeling?
Maya Angelou: Well, it depends on what the circumstances are. I agree that it is better to control oneself, if one can, and not hit back. But on certain occasions, it is imperative to defend oneself. I don’t think it’s fair to ask anybody not to defend herself or himself. So that is a kind of question that has to have a number of codicils, a number of addenda. You have to be able to say, “Under these circumstances, it is very Christian to turn the other cheek.” But if somebody is really trying to take 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 at taking your head off.
Have you ever been in a position to defend someone else who was being discriminated against?
Maya Angelou: Oh yes, many times. I raised a black boy. I’ve defended myself first, and I raised a black boy. I have black children, and I have gay friends, and gay children. I have defended whites.
I will not sit in a group of black friends and hear racial pejoratives against whites. I will not hear “honky.” I will not hear “Jap.” I will not hear “kike.” I will not hear “greaser.” I will not hear “dago.” I will not hear it. As soon as I hear it, I say, “Excuse me, I have to leave. Sorry.” Or if it’s in my home, I say, “You have to leave. I can’t have that. That is poison, and I know it is poison, and you’re smearing it on me. I will not have it.” Now, it’s not an easy thing. And one doesn’t all of a sudden sort of blossom into somebody who’s courageous enough to say that. But you do start little by little. And you sit in a room, and somebody says — if you’re all white, and somebody says, “Well, the niggers — ” You may not have the courage right then, but you say, “Whooh! My goodness! It’s already eight o’clock. I have to go,” and leave. Little by little, you develop courage. You sit in a room, and somebody says, “Well, you know what the Japs did then, and what they’re doing now.” Say, “Mm-hmm! I have to go. My goodness! It’s already six o’clock.” Leave. Continue to build the courage. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to say out loud, “Just a minute. I defend that person. I will not have gay bashing, lesbian bashing. Not in my company. I will not do it.”
Once you find that voice for yourself to speak up, it gets easier each time, rather than more difficult.
Maya Angelou: It’s true, and sweeter. People start identifying you. Somebody starts to say something and someone else will nudge them and say, “Don’t say that. She’s sitting over there.” When we talk about racism, we have to see that we are not just talking about acts against blacks, we are talking about vulgarities against any human being because of her — his — race. This is vulgar. That is what it is, whether it is anti-Asian, whether it is the use of racial pejoratives about Jews, about Japanese, about Native Americans, about blacks, about Irish, it is stupid, because what it is really is it is poison. It poisons the spirit, the human spirit. I know there are blacks who say, “I can use the N-word because I mean it endearingly.” I don’t believe that. I believe it is vulgar and dangerous, given from any mouth to any ear. I know that if poison is in a vial which says P-O-I-S-O-N and has a skull and the cross bones, that it is poison. But if you pour the same thing into Bavarian crystal it is still poison. So I think racism is vulgar any way you cut it.
So many people start out in life with prejudices they may have learned from their parents or friends. What do you say for instance to a young man — a white man or woman — who makes friends with African Americans at school but has parents who are uncomfortable with this, or don’t approve for some reason?
Maya Angelou: There is a line in Hamlet in which Hamlet’s step-father, who is really his uncle, is being berated by Hamlet. And the king says to Hamlet, “You must remember, every father had a father.” Now what that really means is, your parents are repeating what their parents told them. And their parents told them what had been told to them. Obviously, young man, you are breaking the mold. Thank God for that. So that when you have children, you will not tell the children what was told to you. This is the hope we have. This is why young people are the best we have, and all we have. We have prayers, and need, and just terrible yearning that you young people will be able to break the mold.
What do you think of Malcolm X’s statements from the period of his life when he did believe in at least an armed struggle, if not a violent one, to further the cause of civil rights in this country?
Maya Angelou: That was a part of his growth. He was a friend and brother to me. And I’ve written about his last days when we were together. We are all in process. And that’s what I mean, 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 that position we were holding — Here is where courage comes in: To be able to say, “Say everybody, you know what I said yesterday, and said so fervently, and said with such passion? Well I don’t believe that any more. I have been changed.” Now that is courage. So 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’s true that Malcolm X at times called whites “blue-eyed devils,” and espoused violence as a means to meet an end.
Maya Angelou: There was a time when Malcolm espoused the belief that all whites were “blue-eyed devils.” But he took his life in his own hands when he said, publicly, that he had been to Mecca, and there he saw blonde, blue-eyed men whom he could call brothers. He said, “So everybody, what I said was wrong.” Now, that 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 did see it, and he said it. And that has to be — I mean, one has to salute him.
In your opinion, what were the differences and similarities between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?
Maya Angelou: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were much more alike than they were unalike. Their methods of achieving the 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 had lived a different life, too — had lived in the streets and in prison. So his modus operandi was a different one than Martin Luther King, but essentially, at heart they were very much alike. They wanted the best for their people. Now Malcolm said, for his people, but he changed, too. And if you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Mr. Haley, you will see towards the end of the book where I am mentioned in the book. Because Mr. Malcolm X came to Africa, and I was able, along with others, to help him to meet all of the Africans of power in Ghana at the time. He said that he was coming back to the United States to say that he didn’t — he no longer believed that all whites were “blue-eyed devils,” that just being born white did not make a person evil. Now that took a lot of courage, because he had said so, so many times and so eloquently and with so much passion. But he changed, so that when he changed, he became again more in line with Martin Luther King than he had shown earlier. They were very much alike.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a lot of religious leaders who marched with him. Is that a difference between those times and these? Do you believe we have the type of religious leaders that 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 Buddha, or in some cases are black Jews or Muslims or Christians or Shintoists for that matter. Martin Luther King, Jr. always said human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
You mentioned Louis Farrakhan. He has been a very strong advocate of individual responsibility, but he has been a very controversial figure as well. How do you interpret his role?
Maya Angelou: Mr. Farrakhan has offended a lot of people. I understand that. But I am not his apologist, nor the person to interpret him. I think he is very good at interpreting himself. I think that we talk about being Americans and we take it awfully lightly. We forget because probably none of us has lived in another country where, if you said something that the government didn’t agree with, you could be shot at dawn. We take being American for granted. Since Louis Farrakhan is an American, he has the right to say what he thinks to be true. What I would encourage young men and women to do is find that speaker who really speaks to your heart. Try to find two or three who speak to your needs and whose melody you can hum, and listen to that speaker. I do believe that people are controversial as long as their statements shake and maybe question the status quo. Martin Luther King, Jr. was controversial, you must know that. And certainly Malcolm X remained, until he died, a controversial figure. Nobody is going to be all things to all people. You must know that going in.
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of debate, in the courts and elsewhere, about the policy of affirmative action. Is it possible that, while attempting to level the playing field, it could actually exacerbate race relations by making white people feel at a disadvantage?
Maya Angelou: I think affirmative action should be inclusive, as opposed to exclusive. If it is inclusive, it looks after the rights of all people. Creating fears about it is a means of keeping people apart. That’s just another form of separate and rule, divide and conquer. It would be particularly of interest to young men and women today to re-read — if you haven’t read it — a slim volume by Machiavelli called, The Prince. Read it carefully. It will be very important to you. You will see how separate and rule, divide and conquer has been employed since 1507 or thereabouts.
I think affirmative action is affirmative action. I think it’s good for the country. I think it seems on the face of it to be good for the minorities, but the truth is it’s good for the country. If the playing field was level for all people, then we wouldn’t need affirmative action, but it’s been terribly unlevel, terribly unfair for centuries. And in an effort to level the playing field for all people, we need Head Start and affirmative action, and other attitudes and positions which will really cause us to see our nation as our nation and to cause us to be seen at least striving for the level which the forefathers said they strove for. It is very important, I think, affirmative action, and everybody should be affirmative about it, black and white, I think.
It has been suggested that in our society, segregation has moved from the racial sphere to an economic one. Will education alleviate that inequality or is it built into our system?
Maya Angelou: Because of technological breakthroughs, the society will need fewer and fewer unskilled laborers. I do believe that the ways in which economies stabilize themselves will depend upon the young men and women of today, black and white, Spanish-speaking, Native American, Asian. All of you will influence the ways in which economies stabilize themselves and continue to grow. Continue to ask the question and continue to study, see what has gone on before. When King Cotton fell, what happened then? See how George Washington Carver brought in the soy bean and the peanut and stabilized the economy after slavery. You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been. So I would encourage you to see how the economy now is. See what is happening with the great corporations sending their business to Asia and to South America, and what has happened to the economy as a result.
Do you think our free-market system — capitalism itself — creates divisions and inequality?
Maya Angelou: Yes. Absolutely. Unfortunately, I can’t find many other “isms” that don’t do the same thing. We are so new, as a creature. I mean, we’re the last group made, you know? And we just got here. The reptiles were on this little blob of spit and sand for 200 million years, and we just sort of grew this opposing thumb about 25 million years ago. So we are very new, and very rude, and very crass and shallow. And the only way we know to improve ourselves, for the most part, is by standing on somebody else’s neck. Not on their shoulders, but on their neck. And so, I’m not asking for patience. Fortunately, it’s given to young people to be impatient. If we weren’t, we’d still be in the trees. Madame Sun Yat-Sen said, “We still are in the trees.” So fortunately, young people are impatient. I do ask for intelligent viewing, intelligent assessment, intelligent analysis.
How do you think highly publicized events like the Rodney King beating have affected race relations?
Maya Angelou: I think that one has to see what came first. I think that the Rodney King beating was caused by the sad state of race relations in our country. I’m afraid that a number of people can be charged with the sad state of race relations in our country, and I mean that leaders are responsible for a great deal, because we have, in many cases, ceded our own independence and our own thoughts to leaders. And if leaders mislead us, we tend to follow, unfortunately. I do hope that young men and women will start to think for themselves and start to take responsibility for their own thoughts. We have allowed ourselves this horrendous climate in which synagogues are vandalized, in which Asians are beaten, in which Native Americans, in which gays are badgered, in which single white boys are beaten, rapes are at an escalated level. Well, something terrible has happened, and so it is up to you.
You mentioned Native Americans. Do you see the conditions on Indian reservations as a reflection, in some ways, of conditions in many inner cities?
Maya Angelou: My heart is so heavy when I see the reality of the Indian reservation and as an American, I know I am, too, responsible. I am an Indian. I am everything. At once, I feel for the poverty and take great delight in the woman who says “I want to raise my children in the traditional way, so that they will love the earth.” I see us in the most complex, enigmatic puzzle, which of course is life. The need we have to see ourselves in each other and admit what we see is so great. The Native American will only be able to break that cycle when the larger society says, “These people are Americans and deserve everything all Americans have.” The black American will only be able to break his cycle of poverty and violence and child abuse and early death through drugs when the larger society and the African American say, “I and they deserve everything, everything good.” And, until we do that, we are putting band-aids on somebody’s throat which has just been cut. We are just talking. I hope young men and women who are watching today will take this moment to try to talk together. Many of you can hardly articulate what you really feel, and yet your hearts are full. Talk, use the language, men. Use the language, women. That is the only thing which really separates us from the rats and the rhinoceros. It is the ability to say how we feel. “I believe this.” “I need this.” Start to talk, please. Well, you know I love you and I’m really overcome.
We hear a lot these days about so-called political correctness. It is sometimes alleged that the urge to avoid giving offense has distorted or suppressed free speech. How would you advise young people confronted with this sort of concern?
Maya Angelou: All those attitudes go in and out of fashion. Do the right thing. You really know what the right thing is. Fashions may change. Maybe you shouldn’t wear short pants or short skirts or go without a shirt or go without a tie. That is a fashion, but the proper thing, the good thing to do, you already know. In truth, you know to be kind, to be courteous, to be fair. You know that. So try, in every case, black-to-black, black-to-white, white-to-white, white-to-black, Asian, Spanish-speaking, try to put the good word in your mouth. Step out on the good foot and you will always be politically correct.
Do you think we have realized Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream?
Maya Angelou: I don’t know if we have really realized the dream yet. With the recent escalation of hate and violence and racism, I don’t think it’s fair to say that the dream has been realized. I think what we are obliged to do, rather, is continue to remember the dream, and continue to tell the children — all our children — that this is what has been dreamed for them. I think it is imperative that we take small black children and small white children and small Spanish-speaking children and small Asian children, take them into our laps, take them into our classrooms, take them into our homes, into the 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 for. It is very important for them to know that, so that they can feel, “Oh, the welfare of this country depends upon me thinking, and thinking deeply, and thinking correctly, and thinking fairly.” This is important.
Do you think Dr. Martin Luther King would be satisfied with the current state of civil rights if he were alive today?
Maya Angelou: No, I think he would be as active in 1993 as he had been in 1963. In evil times, the only place for a moral person is on the ramparts, in jail or in exile. And so, certainly, when other human beings’ rights are being denied, Dr. King — and I would add Malcolm X, and I would add Medgar Evers, and certainly some of the most active of the Kennedys and a number of other people, Fannie Lou Hamer and others — would be marching or whatever would be effective at this time. Marching might not be the thing for 1993. There might be a necessity to devise a new and other way to deal with inequities in our society, but I am sure that Reverend King would be doing whatever was necessary and whatever would be effective.
Many people say that things really haven’t changed since Dr. King made his speech. Have things changed, and if so, how?
Maya Angelou: Yes, things have changed. If we don’t say things have changed, what we implicitly give the 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 were unable to make any difference. Then that tells young people — Well, they must think, “Well gee, these great people lived, and they didn’t make any difference. What can I do?” We must not say that. We must say 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 major cities in this country. Oh no. In fact, including NASA and the struggle to get out into outer space, though 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 a black American. Yes, things have changed. Look at Henry Cisneros. Not nearly enough, but we must let the children know, “Yes, dear, there is a Santa Claus.”
We’ve been going through some difficult times for young people of color. We read that there are as many young African American men in jail as there are in college. The violence, particularly black-on-black violence, has been at extreme and very dangerous levels for kids growing up in some neighborhoods. Don’t you think Dr. King would be disappointed?
Maya Angelou: Not only would Dr. King be disappointed and hurt, but so would Malcolm X, and so would 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 meant to leave ideals for young black men to emulate. Not to imitate, so much as to appreciate. It’s very hard for anybody to get beyond the propaganda which is dumped on his or her head.
If a person — any human being — is told often enough, “You are nothing. You are nothing. You account for nothing. You count for nothing. You are less than a human being. I have no visibility of you. You are nothing,” if any person is told that often enough, the person finally begins to believe it, and not only believe it, to say, “You think I’m nothing? I will show you where nothing is,” and becomes even lower than he or she is accused of being. It is very, very hard for a young, black man anywhere to sit in his home — in his home, in his place of living — in the street, sometimes — and believe that this country cares about him. It is very hard. So if the country doesn’t care, if his peers are going down the hole, then he says, “Well, they look just like me. They’re nothing. So that proves I’m nothing. In that case, their lives are worth nothing. And I can not only take their lives, I can allow them to take mine.”
There have been articles in The New York Times where kids 15 and 16 recite lists of their friends who are now deceased. What do you do to stop that violence?
Maya Angelou: If I knew that, I would be on TV with Bryant Gumbel in the morning and with Oprah Winfrey tomorrow afternoon. I would stand out on the street corners and shout it, if I knew. All I do know is that the responsibility is ours. It is 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 is hardly a drop of water in the sea. If all of us did everything we could do, we could save our nation, we could save our children.
People will very often try to respond to you on the level on which you address them. So if you say, “Aren’t you wonderful! Aren’t you splendid! My goodness, you’re beautiful. Oh, you are so bright!” people will try, even if they are not, they really will try to lift themselves up to that. On the other hand, if you say, “You are a dog. You really are so low you will never be anybody. In fact, you are nobody now and you never have been,” sooner or later, that person will respond on the level on 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 low really is. I will show you that.” The levels on which we approach young people, they will more often than not respond on those levels. Let me tell you a story about someone who is known by many young men and women.
Years ago, I did a movie called Poetic Justice, and there was a young man, the first day, who cursed so! I couldn’t believe it. I walked around behind him, tried to ignore him. But the second day, he and another young man, black man, ran to each other and they were about to fight and hundreds of extras started to run away, but one black man walked up to the two young men and I walked up. I took one by his shoulder, I said, “Let me speak to you.” He said, “If these blah-blah…” I said, “Let me speak to you, honey.” “Well, I tell you something, blah-blah…” I said, “No, let me talk to you, please.” And he finally calmed down and I said, “Do you know how much you are needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? Please baby, take a minute. Don’t lose your life on a zoom.” I put my arm around him. He started to weep. The tears came down. That was Tupac Shakur. I took him, I walked him down into a little gully and kept his back to the people so they wouldn’t see him, and I used my hands to dry his cheeks. I kept talking to him sweetly, sweetly. For the next week while I was on that film, whenever I walked by, he would be saying, “So I told these…” — he would say, “Good morning, Ms. Angelou.”
People will respond, and you must start them young. Try to introduce courtesy into your speech to each other. You have no idea what it will do for your brother or sister to whom you speak, 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 weapons, have access to handguns. Something like 40 percent of all kids in a recent poll knew where they could get a gun if they wanted one. What do you think about that?
Maya Angelou: Well, my feeling for teenagers — and adults, too — is that we should get rid of the handguns. We should leave ourselves a chance to survive. It’s so easy to see the violence on television and in the movies, and hear it almost extolled. Here’s The Terminator: “I can terminate your life. I can end your life.” And then, to think that they have within their grasp a Saturday night special, or whatever they’re called. Or one of the big magnums. They have within their grasp that weapon. And somebody says, “I don’t like you,” and it comes to this 14- or 15-year-old’s mind, “I can terminate you. Boom!” No, children. No, darlings. Your lives are too valuable. You can’t believe it right now. This is the tragedy. You know, it is said that the 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 person. Because it means that he and she have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. It is so sad. We need you so desperately. Not enough adults have told you, “You are all we have. Everything we’ve done, negative and positive, has been for you. You are all there is for us.” And not enough adults tell you that. But we should tell you that every morning. While you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re pulling on your jeans, while you’re having your breakfast, while you’re on the bus, on the streetcar, on the subway. Some adult should be telling you, “Darling, 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 try to pull them down. Do you think when young people resist that, they can have a positive influence on their peers?
Maya Angelou: It is true that one 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 am sorry to say, ignorance is contagious. I could only wish that intelligence was as contagious, but you have to work quite hard to keep yourself in a positive mode, so that you can influence someone else. But when you help someone else, you are amazed at how much you help yourself.
I notice on airplanes — I have almost two million miles on Delta, so you know I am always in the air. I notice that if a person is very nervous and gets frightened when there is turbulence, it is the moment that happens, even though I am frightened, if I move over to the person and say, “Let me help you. Listen, all is well, I have been through this many times,” that person will hold on to my arm or my hand and suddenly, I am freed and I am rid of fear. So it is something quite marvelous to help somebody else. You have no idea how much you help yourself.
People will respond on the level on which you address them. If a young man or young woman is getting that fortification, that back-up, that support — “Yes, baby, you are wonderful. Mama is so proud of you. Grandma is so proud of you. Big mama loves you. Big papa loves you.” All that, that continues at the church. I haven’t mentioned the church, but if you have the possibility of going to a church and working in the church, you will find yourselves increased. That is, if you are going to a Baptist church, Methodist church, into a synagogue, into a mosque, try to find yourself some place where there are some other young people who are thinking positively. Go to the Catholic church if that is your inheritance and that is what interests you. Find somebody so that some teacher at the church will say, “You know, I am so proud of him. He used to come in here, he just looked like I don’t know what. Now he comes in here, he looks so good, look at him. Look at that fine boy.” And you will try to lift to that. So I encourage you, try to find a church home. I don’t say join, that is up to you and your God. But try to find a church home so you can get some more corroboration, some more fortification.
Over the years, there’s been a change in the public discussion of problems in the black community. Rather than describing them as American problems, as national problems, some people are speaking of “African American community self-destruction.” Does this change of nuance bother you? Discussions of single motherhood or black-on-black crime are often framed this way, as “Blacks ruining themselves.”
Maya Angelou: Well, it is devastating. It’s so painful to see it, and to hear it, and to be victimized by it. Because there’s hardly any black family which can’t tell a story of somebody to whom they’re related either being victimized, or victimizing. But black-on-black crime is a result. Nothing comes from nothing. It is a result of a larger society being malignantly neglectful.
There is no such thing as “benign neglect.” If you neglect a child, that is malignant. That is an active action. And the people in the black community, and the black community entirely, have been victimized by neglect. Now, there are always those in any society who will be able to, by virtue of energy — the good luck to be in a particular place, maybe intelligence — not always intelligence, though. That person, or those persons, may be able to climb up that sheer wall of ice; get footholds; knock pitons in, and climb up somehow. And of course, when that person climbs up, the larger society is apt to look at them and say, “Well, you see, he did it. Why don’t you?” to all of the others who either were not lucky, did not have that particular blessing to be in that place at that time, did not have all that energy, but deserve to reach that high level as much as anyone else.
So I cannot leave the black-on-black crime in the black community, alone. I know that no black people own the jets which bring crack and cocaine out of South America or out of Europe or out of the Middle East. They don’t bring it. But somehow it finds its way into the black community. At some point, a thinker must think: “Why is this? Who brings it? Who really benefits financially?” It’s not the black community.
We’ve heard a great deal in recent years about the number of poor, African American, single women giving birth at an age where they’ve not yet completed their own education, they don’t have their feet on the ground economically. What do you have to say to girls in that situation, girls becoming women when everything around them is falling apart?
Maya Angelou: Well first, if it is possible, avoid having a child out of wedlock, or avoid having a child when you’re too young. I have been there. It was my fortune to have a child when I was 16. I had just finished — I finished high school three weeks before my son was born. Now, here was my blessing. I refused to go on welfare; I refused to take 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 did force myself to read. Read. And I did force myself to work. I have taken my son all over the world. He finished high school in Egypt, where I was working; took his first degree from the University of Ghana, where I was working. I realize this, and this is what I have to say to the young women who already have children: Remember that that is somebody. That’s not just an appendage. It’s not just somebody you attach to your hip and you hold in your arms. That’s a person — a person who may 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 that is somebody. And that is somebody’s child: Your child. And that you are somebody’s child. So try to enrich yourself. Don’t take “No.” Don’t take low. And under no circumstances must you accept being battered by anybody, including life.
What do you say to young black women who see black men dying in 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 would encourage you first to do all you can for your brothers, always. Because every black woman has a black father, black grandfather, probably some black brothers, black nephews, black uncles, and maybe some just good black friends and, if lucky, some black lovers. I would encourage you to have the courage to call a person aside and try to put your hand on him, someone whom you know, and say, “You know, I care about you, and I’m not the only one. You know, if we lose you, we may lose our hold on life.” Speak to him. Speak to her. Do your best.
Now, there is this. It is very difficult to maintain a love affair, even if you live next-door to somebody and his parents and your parents know each other forever and went to the same church, and even went to the same school. It’s very hard for adults to maintain respect and romance so that a love affair can be sustained over years. If you happen to fall in love with someone in another race, it’s more difficult, because you have to translate yourself. I mean, you can’t say, “Um-um-um!” because the person in 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 in our race start to wonder, “Is she talking black and sleeping white?” and so forth. The only thing to remember is you must have the courage to love.
More and more young black people are living and raising children outside of traditional African American communities. What do you say to the young black mother who wants to expose her daughter or son to that tradition when it’s not all around them?
Maya Angelou: Well, that’s a wonderful question. I would do a couple of things. I would find a black church. I’d go to the church about once every two months. I don’t say join the church — go to the church. After about three or four visits, people will start to say, “Well, how are you? What’s your name? What’s this little pretty baby’s name?” and so forth. And before you know it, you will meet somebody in your age group, in your economic group, in your educational group, and you will exchange numbers. That’s my best suggestion.
And the second is, get The Poetry of The Negro or one of those anthologies. Just go to the librarian and ask her or him to find an anthology of African American poetry. Read the poetry to her, when she’s sleeping, when she is just sitting there, when she is lying there crooning to herself, read some poetry. Try to read it in the dialect.
That’s wonderful advice. There’s not a city in the world where you can’t get a book. From the way you talk about books, Ms. Angelou, I suspect that they have been your friends at times when hardly anyone else was.
Maya Angelou: Yes, they are my friends. And I have them by the thousands.
And if you don’t have the money to buy, you can always borrow.
Maya Angelou: Go to the library. But you know, I feel uncomfortable and insecure when I have no rice in my house, no tomato paste and onions, no cooking oil, and no books. I just feel that — Whooh! Anything may happen.
When you love books it’s hard to live without them. Even when you don’t have money for food you don’t want to sell them.
Maya Angelou: Oh, no! Oh, no, no!
Is there any one poem or verse that you’ve used to sustain you through challenges or adversities or difficulties?
Maya Angelou: Well, yes. Some of them are mine, of course. “And Still I Rise,” which is a poem of mine that is very popular in the country. And a number of people use it. A lot of black of people and a lot of white people use it. Which begins:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies;
You may trod me in the very dirt;
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
So there is 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 women, and white women, and Chinese women, and Japanese women, and Jewish women. I wrote it for Native American women, Aleut, Eskimo ladies. I wrote it for all women. Very fat women, very thin, pretty, plain. Now, I know men are phenomenal, but they have to write their own poem.
This one, it says:
“Many people wonder
Where my secret lies.
I’m not cute, or built to suit
A fashion model’s size.
When I try to show them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say: It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman, phenomenally!”
Dr. Angelou, what advice do you have for young poets? How can they get started bringing 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 school and a middle school and a high school, in your area. If you belong to a church, say, on some Sunday afternoon, “I would like to read my poetry,” and then go to the school. Go to the English Department and say “I would like to read my poetry, if you please, at some assembly.” Try, start always at home. This is my encouragement to all writers, start at home. All virtues and vices begin at home, and then spread abroad. If you live in Orangeburg and people start to like you in Orangeburg, before you know it, somebody in Columbia, South Carolina will say, “Why don’t you come up 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 start at home.
Many teachers who work with minority students and disadvantaged students want to teach their students self-esteem and pride in where they come from. Poetry has a role to play in that. So many young people are fascinated by rap music, and that doesn’t have to be negative. Do you have any ideas about using that interest in rap to lead them to poetry and pride in their roots?
Maya Angelou: Absolutely. Take “A Negro 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 they are. Just listen to a couple of lines. The man is speaking, but this is a woman’s poem. It says:
“Seen my lady home last night.
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Held her hand and squeezed it tight.
Jump back, honey, jump back.
Heard her sigh that little sigh,
Saw that light gleam in her eye,
Saw a smile go flittin’ by.
I say, jump back, honey, jump back!”
Whooh! And it goes on. It would just please you no end. And also, get Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Little Brown Baby,” and let some of the girls do it.
“Little brown baby with sparklin’ eyes,
Come to your papa and sit on his knee.
What you been doin’, sir? Makin’ sand-pies?
Look at that bib. You as dirty as me.”
You see? Give them that. And give them my poem “Weekend Glory.”
Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King believed in something that you have alluded to, which was the building up of a positive racial pride, a positive sense of self, without the necessity to demean others. A genuinely strong self doesn’t rely on demeaning someone else to feel strong. Where can kids today get the support to keep pursuing positive choices, when there are so many negative influences out there?
Maya Angelou: Well, again, I put the weight back on us.
We, the teachers, those of us who are the television producers, I mean, and speakers, interviewers, the professors, the parents, we have to broaden our thinking. We must do to include all the children, you see? There are Asian children watching. Those children need to know that they have already been paid for. They need to be reminded that in the 1850s the Asians came to this country and built the railroads. They need to know that for centuries — I mean for decades, they were unable legally to bring their mates. They need to know that, that they have been paid for. 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 that they can say, “Oh, wait just a minute. I’m not here at anybody’s sufferance. This is my country.” You see?
Spanish-speaking children, we should remind them of the beauty and the poetry in their own language, and that in fact this is proof of their worthiness and the worthiness of their language. I would read to them from Garcia Lorca and Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, so they could get some sense of themselves, and start right now to read poetry aloud. Read Garcia Lorca aloud.
Let’s talk about multi-cultural 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 somehow downplays or devalues their own.
Maya Angelou: The 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 facts can stand in front of the truth and almost obscure the truth. It is imperative that students learn the truth of our history. However sad, however mordant, however terrible, we must know it. The only way out of something is all the way through it. You must see it, read it, study it, and then you can pass through it, you see? It is imperative that young white men and women study the black American history. It is imperative that blacks and whites study the Asian American history. You should know that the Asians built these railroads, that they were brought here, as Maxine Hong Kingston said, to Gold Mountain in the 1850s, in the 1840s, unable legally to bring their mates for eight decades. It’s important that you know that, otherwise how can you make friends? Only equals make friends, you see?
You need to know what happened with the pogroms in Russia and Poland. You must know it, because you are living next door to, being taught by, or going to teach or marry somebody who is a descendant from that group of people. You need to know it. Don’t hesitate to learn the most painful aspects of our history, understand it.
So many young people alive today never saw the effects that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had, but they read a lot of your writings. You and other writers bring them a sense of what they need to know. Do you see it that way?
Maya Angelou: Well, each one of us stepped on another’s shoulders, you see? So you stand on my shoulders. I stand on Martin’s and Malcolm’s shoulders, and Medgar Evers’s shoulders. And they stood on Dr. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, you see? So we make a wonderful pyramid. That’s why it’s always important to know you are in your place, because someone went before you, and paid for you. There is a new book that’s coming out soon on the nine children who desegregated the high school in Little Rock.
It’s called Brave Warriors Don’t Cry, or something like that. It’s going to be out in a few months. It’s an incredible book, and I would encourage it for all young men and women — all — just to read what it’s like to be 15, and try to go to a school where people are shouting and screaming at you and throwing things and saying how awful you are and that you stink. And then to persevere, to somehow continue, keep your head up, your chin out, you know, and walk on in. It’s a marvelous book.
If Dr. King had not been around in the 1950s and ’60s, if he had not been in the leadership of the struggle, would someone else have come along? Where would that leadership have come from?
Maya Angelou: Martin Luther King, Jr. always brought someone along. It is important to see that Martin Luther King and other leaders all did this — current, contemporary leaders and leaders of antiquity. Whether it was Jesus Christ bringing along 12 men with him, 12 disciples who became apostles, who then kept the idea going. All the time, there were men of leadership and women of leadership qualities who bring someone along with them — always, by helping them to see.
It is 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’s within your grasp, absolutely. Those were human beings. So, if you approach that with that idea — if you approach the future with the idea that I am up to it, I am a man or woman of my time, and I am up to it. I will study hard, pray a lot and all that, but I am up to it. If you do that, then, in case the contemporary leaders fall, there will be someone to step in the place, you see? That is what is 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 that the world ended, as tragic as it was, when Reverend King was assassinated. Young men and women are preparing themselves now for the burden and the glory of being great. And you can’t say where the person will come from. She may be growing up in a condominium in Hilton Head or he may be growing up in a log cabin in Charlotte, North Carolina, or in Virginia where you are. He may be Asian, he may be white, he may be black, she may be Native American, she may be Spanish speaking, she may be blond, she may be black-skinned. She’ll be an American. That’ll be hot, yes? She’ll be an American, trying to live at the highest level. So don’t, don’t become disheartened. Just create yourself. Have enough courage to invent yourself.
Are there particular women 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 Congresswomen in the future. Somebody’s going to be it, and those young people are somewhere. So why shouldn’t they be you? I really dislike divisions. I dislike them heartily. All comparisons become odious at some point. So, for women and men, what you have to do, as young people, is set your goals just beyond your reach, not so far beyond that you become frustrated, you understand, and think, “I’ll never get it,” but just beyond, just an inch beyond and keep stretching toward that, toward that goal.
For African American youth 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 he or she can turn to help the next man.
Maya Angelou: Try to retain some of the finest parts of the African American culture, some of the sweetest parts. The fact that people kind of drop their voices and become almost musical when they talk to a friend, or to a preacher, or to a teacher. They say, “Hey! How you doin’?” Remember that. Keep the melody in your mind and in your spirit. It will keep you tender in the tough times, which is very important. The other thing to do is read.
Read ceaselessly. Read. Go into a library and just make yourself a list. Say, “I will read from A to BR.” Read. All knowledge, my dear young woman — all knowledge — is spendable currency, depending upon the market. Read. Put it in the old bean. You’ll be amazed how it will serve you.
Dr. Angelou, are you encouraged by what you are hearing from young people today?
Maya Angelou: Oh yes, yes. They lift my heart. Those are the heroes and sheroes, those young people. I would encourage you all to talk more too, so that your speech is more clear. I would ask you to talk to each other more and read. Listen, this is a very good hint, a tip: Go into your room, close the door and read something aloud, just for yourself, just so that you can hear how the voice can carry. Lift yourselves up, physically, so that you get lots of air down into your lungs, and speak, speak out. One of the reasons we wanted to hear what Dr. King had to say was because of his eloquence, because of his delivery and because of the way he presented it. So go into your rooms, young men and women, black and white, go in, close the door and read aloud. Read from Thomas Paine, if you will. Read from Martin Luther King, if you will. Just read, read Barbara Jordan’s speeches aloud.
Go into their rooms and close the doors just to hear the language, just to hear what it can sound like. Close the door and tell people, “I am studying,” which is true, you will be studying. So try to read all poetry, the African American, Native American, Spanish American, Asian American, white American, read it all and read it aloud 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 are 26, somebody will be coming to you saying, “I want to work with you. Please, help me, give me a chance.” Try poetry, always, to uplift yourself.
What is the value to others of young women or young men who know how to hold themselves well?
Maya Angelou: Well, when you know you are of worth — not asking it, but knowing it — you walk into a room with a particular power. When you know you are of 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 is, as the air is, the same way water is wet. It doesn’t have to protest.
When do you think Dr. King’s dream will come true?
Maya Angelou: It’s not something that “comes” true. We have to make it true. We have to work at it. It’s not something we can sit back and say, “Whew! It’s coming, round the mountain.” No, no, we have to go out and put our hands on it and build it, flesh it out, make it real. We have to do that. He dreamed the dream. It is up to us who are left here to make it come true.
As we speak, it’s been about 40 years since Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that schools would be desegregated. Even now, we still have the problem of schools having enormously unequal resources. Do you see that changing in our lifetime? So everybody gets the same level of teacher attention and equipment and books and safety?
Maya Angelou: Yes, but we have to want it. I don’t mean say we want it; I don’t mean like it. We have to need it, understand that we need it. There is a Zen story about a man who studied with a master, or mistress, for a while, and told the master, “I want the truth.” And the master said, “All right.” And he lived with him, and he sent him out and he cut trees. He said, “Now, cut trees for a while.” So the fellow cut trees for about six or eight months. And he finally said to the master, “I’ve been asking you for the truth.” He said, “Oh, that’s right.” And he said, “You haven’t told me anything.” He said, “That’s right.” 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, master, I’m leaving you. I told you I wanted the truth.” The master said, “Let me walk with you a way.” He walked with him till they came over a bridge. Under it, there was rushing water. The master gave him a shove. He went over. The guy went down once. He said, “I can’t swim!” Down again, “I can’t swim!” The third time, the master pulled him up onto the side, and said, “Now, when you want truth the same way you wanted that breath of air, you’ve already got it.”
Now, that may sound very strange, but when you want it — when you want it, you have already started to get it. So one of the things I would say to young men and women, in order to keep the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. alive, is want it, love it. You will already have a piece of it. So get that much, admire that much and build upon it. Build upon it in all the ways your parents and your teachers and preachers and rabbis and imams are telling you. Continue to build little-by-little, inch-by-inch.
Dr. Angelou, it’s been a complete pleasure speaking to you today.
Maya Angelou: And my appreciation to the Academy of Achievement. I am very proud of this organization, to which I belong. I’m very proud of it.