These excerpts are from an interview with Maya Angelou conducted by Renee Poussaint as part of the National Visionary Leadership Project. More information can be found at http://www.visionaryproject.org/angeloumaya.
POUSSAINT: What should young people know about Malcolm X?
ANGELOU: About Malcolm X?
POUSSAINT: Um hmm. That perhaps they don't know, that you have a particular perspective on.
ANGELOU: Well, this is going to sound strange and maybe even frivolous, but it isn't. They said know he had an incredible sense of humor. They should know that about Martin, too. Martin King had an incredible sense of humor.
One of the things some historians do, one of the mistakes made, is the historian—and social historian in particular—oft times recreate the man or woman as larger than life, which puts the person beyond the reach of a young person.
So, if Malcolm and Martin and Abraham Lincoln and Kennedy, Dr. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune are beyond their reach, then they say, "Well, there's nothing I can do. Those people were bigger than life, and I'm just myself. I was born in Boston." "I'm just myself. I was born in Kansas City. What can I do?"
So the wisest thing is to make the people accessible. Shows their wilds and their wits and their warts. Show them. So a person can say, "You know, given the same circumstance, I think I'd have done that, too. I like to think I could have done that."
So both men—I knew Malcolm much better than Dr. King—but Malcolm was a faithful man, great loving person who really loved black people. And then one of the most courageous persons I've ever known.
Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can't be consistently kind, consistently fair, merciful, just, loving—you cannot.
Malcolm, having said that all whites were blue-eyed devils—2:52 on this right said—he went to Mecca, and he came to West Africa and he said, "I have met white-skinned, blue-eyed men who I openly call brother. I was wrong."
Now it takes a great deal of courage to say that. Even when the person feels that they were wrong. I see this today. People who don't believe what they say, but because they have the habit is saying it, and are known as saying it, they're afraid to say, "Listen, everybody, you remember what I said last week? I don't believe that.
So among other things, his courage and his exquisite sense of humor. Young people should be reading—read the books! Read the books.
Writing for President Clinton's Inauguration
ANGELOU: I was phoned, I was telephoned by Tommy Thomason, who with his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, were the writers and producers of "Designing Women." So when I heard that he was on the phone, I thought he wanted me to write a segment to...I write these...some things...television...program.
And he said, "No...." He said that President Clinton was told that he could have a poet, any poet in the world, to write a poem for his inauguration, and he asked if you would. I said yes, I will, and thank him, please.
He said, "And he'd like you to read it at the inauguration." Yes again, thank you.
And I began to pray, of course. Of course—you have to ask for help from somewhere. [laughing]
I was just listening...BeBe Winans—you know BeBe? BeBe was at my house last week, and he told a story about Humpty Dumpty. He said, "All the king's horses and all the king's men, couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again." He said, "You know why? Because they went to the wrong king." [laughing]
So I ask for help at the source of creativity, the Creator itself, to help me now.
So it was known that they—somebody did a press release—that I'd been asked to write this time poem. So I would get on to planes and people would ask me, "Morning! Finished with the poem yet?" as if I was writing a letter. [laughing] Oh my goodness!
POUSSAINT: Were you gratified by the response to....
ANGELOU: Absolutely. Then I was asked by the United Nations to write that poem, and that's all over the world—A Brave and Startling Truth.
Gather Together in My Name
ANGELOU: And the book is called "Gather Together In My Name" and in it, I had written about a very rough time at eighteen. I had had "Caged Bird," which was a national bestseller, and my first book of poetry," "Cool Drink of Water," was nominated for the Pulitzer.
And I went on to a national show and the women who'd interviewed me, who I knew slightly, said, "Maya Angelou, how does it feel to know you're the first black woman to have national bestseller, non-fiction, second book nominated for the Pulitzer and to know that at eighteen you were a prostitute?
It was like a kick in the stomach. However, there is this: You must always be careful who you call out. You must be. When she said that...and I said, "Ah, there are many ways to prostitute oneself, and you know a lot about that, don't you, dear?" Whereupon they went to a break, yes. Whereupon her co-host came in and concluded the interview.
But I said I had noticed that so many parents tell their children either implicitly or explicitly that they've never done anything wrong. "Oh my goodness, if I had done that, my daddy would have killed me." "Oh no, I couldn't that. That would hurt the family." So the young person thinks, "My goodness, I must be the lowest thing in the world because not only do I that, I want to do that."
So I wrote the book "Gather Together In My Name" to tell young people who've been told that their parents have no skeletons in the closet—in fact, they have no closets—that I would admit where I've been. And they could see that and they could realize that you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, how you can rely upon yourself, where you can pull yourself up from.
So, I had written a book.... Just before I had sent it off to the publisher, I called my mother, my brother, and my son. And my husband had said, "Write it." I said, "People will hate me." And he said, "Write it. If it's true, a number of young black women and black man—and white man and white women, young Asian women, Spanish-speaking women—have tried to reach an exit and found the doors not only locked, but no door knobs on the doors. And they have done many things. It's important that you write it."
So, I called the family and I read that.... "There's a section you must know. If it's too painful, I'll take it out. But let me tell you why I want to write it." My mom, as soon as I finished the section, stood up and said, "Is it ready for the post office? I'll take it myself." [laughing]
And my brother, who is my heart, said, "You never have been a liar. I love you for it."
It was my heart, it was my son, twenties.... He got up from the floor and came and sat beside me and took me in his arms and said, "You are great, Mother. You are great." Ha ha! Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.
POUSSAINT: Oh. Oh. That had to be an unbelievably magical moment.
ANGELOU: Magical. Absolutely.
But on the book tour, I stopped in in Cleveland, Ohio.... When that book came out, department stores still had book departments in them. So I stopped there to sign books. And I was signing, the line was long...Your name, and your name...and suddenly I looked and there were two hands, black, with false fingernails—young hands—and I followed the hands out, and there was false hair—lots of it—and to a young face—about 18—false eyelashes—it was 10:00 in the morning. She's a young street prostitute. She leaned over—she had heard me on television—she leaned over, she said, "You give me hope."
Ah.... Now, if no one else said anything to me—ever—it's sufficient.
Raising the New Generation
POUSSAINT: Does it bother you that a lot of young black people today have no idea what that was like?
ANGELOU: Yes. Yes. Somebody dropped the ball.
You see, a generation of people thought, "Well, I'm going to send my kids to Bryn Mawr and Brown and to Mason. I'll send them to Princeton, Smith, Mount Holyoke. I'll send them to Yale, Harvard. And everything will be all right. And so I don't have to tell them about how awful it was in the thirties and forties and even fifties. They don't have to know that.
It is very clear—he/she who does not learn from his/her history is doomed to repeat it. And repeat it and repeat it, ad nauseam.
POUSSAINT: Is that what we're doing now?
ANGELOU: Absolutely. Ad nauseam.
POUSSAINT: We are beginning to repeat the same....
ANGELOU: So it imp...this is why—this project—why I said yes, and I understood what you wanted to do. Absolutely yes. Yes. I'm a very good fountain of information and I have no—I have no modesty at all - none.
It's a learned affectation—very dangerous, that modesty is put on from without—very dangerous. Because life will slam a modest person against the wall. And the modesty will drop off faster than a G-string would drop off a striper.
Humility is the thing one wants. Humility comes from within, out. Not out, on. Humility says someone was here before me. And I am here. I have something to do. I, too, have my responsibilities. And there'll be someone coming behind me, who I must prepare the way for.
POUSSAINT: So how do we change, how we break...
ANGELOU: By this. This is absolutely, in every way possible.
Don't stop talking. Don't putting your hands on the children. I do that—I put my hands on the children—the black children, the white children.
So to such a degree that Elmo, from Sesame Street, was interviewed on the "Today" show, and Matt Lauer asked, "Who is your... Who have you interviewed? Do you talk to kings and queens and princesses...presidents? Who do you like most?" And he said, "That's be Maya Angelou." [laughing]
POUSSAINT: And that's where our hope is.
ANGELOU: Here, in Washington, D.C., there's a school, the Maya Angelou School, and we accept children who've been in trouble. Only those who come through the correctional system can go to the Maya Angelou School. And when the young woman—there'd been a contest how to name the school—I'd been a supporter of the school. And I was there, as was Senator Domenici, and other senators, Donna Shalala and Dr. Hite, Secretary Herman, lots and lots of cabinet members. And this young woman got up, and she said, "Well, I won, and they told me I had to read this letter, my winning letter." I'm paraphrasing her, because she then, at that time, had that same lazy tongue that [unintelligible]. "I think the school oughta be named after Maya Angelou. And why? Because Dr. Angelou down here. Every time she come here, she try to pull us up. She been down low. You been low as we are, you know. And she's now up there. I mean, she's up there. She's up over all you white folks here." [laughing] 4:40 Dr. Hite said, "Whoops!" [laughing]
But they always pull the children—all of them. Don't let one slide—not one. Not one Asian, not one Spanish-speaking, one white one, one Jewish one. Pull.
POUSSAINT: But don't many of those young people who went to Mount Holyoke and went to Smith and Yale, etc. etc.—don't a number of them say, "Look, I don't need any help."?
ANGELOU: Well, that's all right.
POUSSAINT: "I don't need to be pulled."
ANGELOU: Too bad. Well, if they don't, don't. But I mean those who didn't. Because they [unintelligible] feel they didn't, they then don't give it to their children. But then they didn't get it. Their parents are the ones who sent them off to the white schools with the idea that this would make them even, well—and normal, well—and white. [laughing] Really not. Going to school will not make you white. I have 50 doctorates, which means I've been to 50 universities...[laughing]...and it hasn't had any affect at all on my complexion. [laughing]
POUSSAINT: So these parents.... I know some of these parents, the ones that you're talking about. They feel that they're protecting their children from the horrors of the past, that the children don't need to know about what it was like before the Civil Rights Movement. They feel they don't need know what the Civil Rights Movement was like.
ANGELOU: Well, too bad. That's ignorant. That's just ignorance. I'm sorry, but it's ignorance. One can have enormous education and be blitheringly ignorant. Now that is blithering ignorance. He who does not learn from his history is doomed to repeat it.
Machiavelli wrote that slim volume, "The Prince," and I usually keep in any house of mine, six, eight, ten copies of it to give to young men and women to read, because it became the manifesto for all Western nations, about 1507. In it, among other instructions, he showed if you really want to control the people, separate them—you can rule them. Divide them, you can conquer them.