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If you like Maya Angelou's story, you might also like:
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Maya Angelou in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Martin Luther King Day
Maya Angelou also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character
A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. I
A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Vol. II
Maya Angelou - Official Website
Maya Angelou Interview (page: 3 / 9)
Poet and Historian
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?
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.
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This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 16:27 EST
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