by Patricia Grandjean
May 3, 2012
01:15 PMBox Office
Q&A Web Exclusive: Maya Angelou
At 84, Dr. Maya Angelou has led the kind of life most of us only read novels about—one that has taken her from prostitute and nightclub dancer to civil rights activist at the side of both Malcom X and Martin Luther King to her current status as one of the most renowned and influential voices in contemporary literature, thanks to her authorship of six acclaimed autobiographies, five books of essays and countless volumes of poetry. These days, she's also hailed as one of the greatest speakers of our time, making up to 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit. Her long list of awards includes Grammies, the National Medal of the Arts, the NAACP Image Award, the Mother Teresa Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented her by President Barack Obama in 2011. (She's also the recipient of nearly 40 honorary degrees, bestowed by the likes of Smith College, Tufts University, the University of Illinois and the University of Southern California.) Angelou's next speaking engagement will bring her to the Bushnell in Hartford at 7:30 on April 10. For information about tickets, call (860) 987-5900 or visit bushnell.org.
Can you give us a little preview of what your talk at the Bushnell will be about, and how you'll approach it?
That's a very good question. It's said that a good speaker may have six or eight topics, but one theme. The same is said of writers. I don't know about that. I do have a theme though, even when I say to myself that "I'm not going to talk about that this time": I speak about courage. Courage, I think, is the most important of all the virtues—because without it, you can't practice any of the other virtues consistently. You can be anything erratically: kind, fair, just or merciful. But to be that thing time after time, you have to have courage—the courage to stick by what you believe in.
And usually, I say some funny things. I like to put the audience at ease. Especially if I've been introduced as this grand woman who has 60 doctorates, and who did this, and did that . . . Sometimes I feel as if I'm at my own wake.
So you're aware of the fact that the impression people have of you may be somewhat intimidating.
People are very surprised . . . I have a friend whose granddaughter is about 14—she was there when I went to speak to some survivors of cancer, especially breast cancer, down in Atlanta. When I went onstage, I told my assistant that I hoped to make these people fall off their chairs laughing. I did thoroughly enjoy myself, and I laughed, and they laughed. My assistant said that two security guards, both men with large paunches, one black and one white, were actually hugging each other while laughing, holding on to each other. And my friend's granddaughter said, "Auntie Maya, I didn't know you could be funny!" Well, it's true.
I have found that if I can encourage an audience to relax, they can hear better. They're not "tight." What I have to say of importance—and I think it is important or I wouldn't say it; I wouldn't go anywhere—I want it to be in people's minds, in their conversations. I never wanted to write a dust-catching masterpiece. Either what I say is important or it isn't, and if it isn't, I'll stay at home and play Boggle, you know?
It's interesting that you bring up "dust-catching masterpieces." I know that you've said that in your youth, you were a great fan of Shakespeare and Dickens. I was, too—they were authors who were often intimidating to friends of mine, but from my point of view, they spoke of things that were important to me and that I could readily grasp.
Me, too. Shakespeare was the first white person that I could say I loved. I really loved him. I liked Edgar Allan Poe; I liked Poe because of his internal rhyme. I never heard any of his poetry recited, but I read it in rhythm. And this is 70 years ago. I read Shakespeare in the same tone and cadence and rhythm that the hip-hoppers use, you know? I memorized everything; I spent spent six or seven years of my childhood as a mute. So I just gobbled things up. I felt the same way about Dickens . . . oh, I cried for that little boy Oliver. I was lonely as a child, and I knew those kids.
My favorite novel to this day is Great Expectations. And I still tell everyone to read it.
Oh, yes [laughs]. I'd hate to try to think of which is my favorite. Hmm . . . they're all so wonderful. And on sunny days, you need a different poet than on wintry days.
What are the rewards for you of addressing audiences as you do, speaking with them?
Well, let me preface that with I believe I have something to say; I know I do. And I believe I'm here for some particular reason. That reason, I've come to believe, is to ferret out some truth from the facts. Facts can obscure the truth, the human truth. Sometimes, people who don't have the courage to tell themselves the truth let themselves be satisfied with a bunch of facts.
I give the convocation at Duke University every year; this is my 23rd year. And when I go in, I go to the microphone—and there's about 1,800 students, and parents, and professors in the audience—and I begin by singing, "By and by, Lord, by and by/I'm gonna lay down this heavy load." And I say, "At last, you're in an institution built for the express purpose of giving you the chance to lay down this load of ignorance. At last, you can open your hands and drop it like a bucket. Maybe you're carrying something given to you by your race, or your parents, or your neighborhood, or something someone told you that you believed. Here, you can put your finger on the best of human thinking from all over the world, and all times that have been recorded." So, I think that a part of my mission is to encourage people to develop courage.
Just hearing you talk about the opportunity gets me excited again.
That's the point. I tell the students, "A good student can make a mediocre teacher great." Because a teacher may lose that fervor, that fire, that made him or her want to be ateacher in the first place. Over time, it just gets to be a job, in which you teach lesson 10 on the 10th week, and so forth and so on. But if a student continually challenges a teacher, or seeks help, sooner or later that teacher is going to ealize, "This kid is serious. Let's see what I can do to bring more to the table."
Speaking of separating truth from the facts, as we speak the news media is certainly very preoccupied with the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story. What's your perspective on that?
It's just . . . we've been down this road too many times. I know—or I believe—all virtues and vices begin at home, and there's a trickle-down effect that goes with that. We have gotten ourselves to such a place that we indulge violence, and it seems to be the order of the day. We turn our faces aside when we see the violence of poverty, or violence against women. It's something that's put in our country and the world, and it gives me quite a lot of distress.
It seems like we're using violence as the go-to for problems we can't handle. Zimmerman went straight for the gun.
Exactly. Zimmerman is a product of his country, and his time. I don't mean that that forgives him, but it does explain him. I think it's the same thing as that young man who went off and killed all those civilians in the Middle East. And now we're saying that he was distraught and we shouldn't have sent him on so many deployments. But they did, and this was his fourth—c'mon, kids. Who's kidding who?
What do you think these incidents say about where we're at in terms of race relations?
Again, I think we have to look at the leadership. I'm afraid that racism and sexism and ageism and all the other ignorances are very much alive and unwell in our country. And somebody with some sense has to stand up and say, "This won't do."
A few years ago, I spoke to the National Association of Directors and Producers in Hollywood. They have a magnificent building in Burbank, with wonderful lawns and walks and waterfalls. So I went in, and they had people who had paid me a lot of money to come. I used to be at 20th Century-Fox as their first black female director-producer-writer. The place held about 3,000 people; it was wonderful. So I went down there and spoke for about 15 minutes, made a couple of jokes—and then I asked, "Why do you bring such vulgarity, and brutality, and profanity into my living room, my bedroom, and my nursery? Why do you do that?" And I just listed some of the things that were being issued by Hollywood at the time through television and movies.
I said, "I know you're going to tell me, you're giving the people what they want. Well, I suggest that 10 years ago, if anyone had told you that the tobacco industry would not only be crippled, but almost be severed from its finances, you'd say 'No, no, this is a billion-dollar business.'" And I said, "This place holds 3,000. I bet you there's at least 50 people in this room right now who would give anything for a cigarette. Although you built this building, you can't smoke in it. Because three or four people sat down somewhere and said, 'You know, this is stupid.' And then four or five more people added their voices, and so on, and finally, someone at the top said, 'We've got to do something about this.'" And here they were, "giving people what they wanted"—they not only wanted it, they were addicted. I told them, "And yet now, the time will come when you will not be able to smoke, even on the grounds." Not enough people have raised their voices about violence, is my point. Everybody leaves it to somebody else.
But it's interesting too, now, that so many are worried that President Obama is going to take their guns away: "How dare he?"
Oh . . . yes.
My parents are around your age. How do you keep your energy and focus?
I think Art Linkletter is credited with having said, "Growing old is not for sissies." You have to have your mind made up, because you wake up in the morning and think, "Oh—I didn't know I had a muscle there!" [laughs] Now, I'm what is known as a COPD patient: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. So I'm on oxygen—I can do an hour, or hour-and-a-half without it, as I go out and pretend to be fully healthy. But behind the curtain, my assistant is waiting with a portable oxygen tank attached to a wheelchair. So after I take my bow and say, "Thank you so much," it's off to the wheelchair and to put the oxygen on. But I'm not going to let it make me stay at home—I still have something to say.
After all the time you've spent in the public eye, what would you say is the biggest misconception people have about you?
Oh, I think people think I'm very wise and very sage. A London newspaper journalist called me a couple of weeks ago and said, "How does it feel to be called the sage of the United States?" I started laughing, because if I wasn't, I'd ask, "Who dared to say that?" Anyone who would say that doesn't know what a sage is, obviously.
What surprises you most about yourself at this point in your life?
I still love it; I really love to live. And I'm visited with all the different aches and pains that the flesh is heir to. But I still love to have dinner parties. I have someone to cook, but I sit and watch every spoonful of butter that goes into it, every pinch of salt. And I have two cookbooks out, y'know? So I invite people over, and have my Scotch Johnnie Walker Gold—or even Johnnie Walker Black; I like both. And good wine. And I like a good spiritual service.
So these are the pleasures . . .
Some of the pleasures. I also love music, country music and jazz.
Are there any new African American voices out there, in literature or other arts, that you're excited about?
I'm still excited about Amiri Baraka. And when you asked that I was thinking about one young woman's name, and now poof! it's gone. But as soon as we hang up it'll come back to me. There are a number of young women and men whose work you can read in Essence magazine. There's a young man I'm thumping the drum for now, named Trevor Baldwin. He's one of James Baldwin's nephews. He's got the ear for it. And as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, "Easy reading is damned hard writing." I find that to be true. Do you?
Absolutely. Even as a journalist, I find that when I'm trying to make something interesting and readable, I'm sweating it a lot more—or at least I hope so—than the people who are reading it.
The same here! Some critics, when they read my work, say "Maya Angelou has a new book, and of course it's good, but she's a natural writer." It's like being a natural open heart surgeon. I'm laboring over each piece of work. Laboring.
What are you working on now?
I've got the book in front of me this minute; it's called Mom and Me and Mom. It's a book about my mother and my grandmother—not her mother, but my father's mother, who raised me. And my brother. The people who really . . . I come from them. People ask "How did you get to be Maya Angelou; how do you do that?" I credit my mom with so much of my desire to think, my courage to think and efforts to apply what I have found to be true.Q&A Web Exclusive: Maya Angelou