Revisiting an Exclusive Interview with the Late Dr. Maya Angelou
"You don’t have to be so jaded and think you have all the answers—that’s boring."
All images courtesy of Maya Angelou archives.
Maya Angelou, memoirist, poet, and activist, was an iconic figure. Her first book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” told of her childhood in rural Arkansas in the days of segregation, and was one of the first books openly to discuss childhood sexual abuse: she was raped by her stepfather at the age of nine, and, after his murder by her uncles, did not speak for years. She followed “Caged Bird” with five more volumes of memoir.
Since 1999, she had taught at Wake Forest University at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she holds the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. In 1993, she recited her poem “On The Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. At the age of 84, she spoke to Allegra Huston for GARAGE No. 3.
GARAGE: If you were to describe your life’s journey, what would that be?
Maya Angelou: Fortunately, I have a destination. There are a lot of stops and starts. My destination is to be good human being. That’s what I mean to be and I work at it - someone who is kind and true and honest and fair and generous.
What do you think in your life has most taught you to be those things?
Kindness I have received. I had the good fortune of being the granddaughter of a great woman- my father’s mother - who taught me not to whine, not to complain, and if I don’t like a thing do my best to change it, and if I can’t change it, change the way I think about it. She said never complain, because there are people who went to sleep when you went to sleep last night, rich and poor, white and black, who never awakened. They’d give anything for just five minutes of what you might be complaining about. She said their beds have become their cooling boards, their blankets have become their winding sheets.
Do you think you succeeded in changing things?
You’re talking to me, so I must have had some impact. What I’m doing right now! I’m about the business of trying to be a good human being, and that influences some people.
Do you think the best teaching is by example?
Absolutely. You look a fool trying to tell somebody something if you don’t believe it enough to practice.
What do you think you learned from working in the two different sides of the civil rights movement, for both Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?
Passion. I learned that from both of them. I have learned, and I am learning, the value of humor- it’s very important. I’m still learning, I’m in process, I’m still alive!
What do you think age has given you?
A sense of being able to look back and see what worked and what didn’t work.
What didn’t work?
I can’t say that right now, that would take a whole book. What does work is a passion, a sincere examination of one’s ambitions. What do you really want to do? What do you really want to achieve? Do that and come to some agreement. You are very likely to be about the business of getting something done.
What would you most like to be remembered for? You have done so many different things, as a writer, as an activist.
If I was thinking about dying I might be able to say that, but I’m not thinking about dying right now.
So what are your goals for the next 10 to 20 years?
I hope to continue to write, and I want to write well. I will continue to write a little music and write some songs and some poetry and lectures. I have a new book coming out in about six months, called “Me, Mom and ME.” It’s about my mother and her impact on my life.
That was one of the questions I wanted to ask you.
She gave me so much, and introduced me to so much passion. I love her very much. She has been dead many years, but she’s very much alive to me.
How do you think that having a child of your own so young changed you - or did it?
It forced me to educate myself, so I could educate him and encourage him to educate himself. Because of that, I have learned things I probably would have never learned. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
You had a child so young, and then you left home. Most girls with a baby would have stayed at home and had their mother help them.
I gladly accept kindness, even charity, but I didn’t want to be looked down upon and thought of as weak. So, at 17, I just walked out of my mother’s house. She wouldn’t give me anything, seeing as I wouldn’t take anything, but she supported my sense of self, she was very proud that I was independent.
Presumably the way she supported you must have been as formative as anything else.
That’s really why I wrote this book - to encourage parents in general, and mothers in particular, to love their children, don’t be in love with them. If you’re in love with them, you try to make them small copies of yourself, and that’s terrible. You take their life away.
What do you think is the source of your strength - what is the source of a woman’s strength in a world that’s not so hospitable to her?
I think that you have to look to yourself for your strength. It helps if you have a strong mother and strong grandmother, and a brother. My brother was the closest my family ever came to making a genius, and he loved me. He explained to me that, although people called me “Dummy”, because I wouldn’t speak for years, “You’re smarter than anyone around here, so don’t worry about that. Smarter than anyone but me!” He was smart. I had to always work at it, but my brother, it seemed he learned things by osmosis. As if the answer was in the air and as soon as he had the question he had the answer. To have so much expected of you jis a marvelous thing.
So for a woman without a strong mother, or without a mother at all…
Well, you have to look to yourself. You must. Realize it’s not your brother’s life, it’s not your cousin’s life, it’s your life. You have this one chance to be yourself, and nobody else can be you but you. So try yo be somebody you like.
What do you love most about life?
I continually have an attitude of gratitude. Unkindness, cruelty and brutality, all of those vulgarities distress me. But life, it’s so full, I have so much, I’m just grateful.
I get the impression from your books that you like to be surprised.
You don’t have to be so jaded and think you have all the answers—that’s boring.
What would be your happiest day?
This one! I have never seen this day before and here I am in it.