was a poet and civil-rights activist (and much, much else besides). On 26 September 2002, Nelson González spent three hours with her at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
‘She was incredibly warm, unassuming and generous,’ he recalls. ‘There was a holiness about her, a hard-earned self-knowledge, empathy and a profound spiritual simplicity. I can feel her presence as I write this.
‘And she offered me red wine in her kitchen at 11.30 in the morning…!’
You have written that the greatest of all virtues is courage. What is it in your life that has led you to that conclusion?
I think that we’re in the presence of courage when we see a person during cruel times being kind. We know we’re in the presence of courage when everyone is on the run, ideas are on the run, everything is fluid, everything is volatile, and a person has the patience, gives himself or herself time, to allow someone else to have time. That is courage. In a time of greed, when to have more means to be more, and someone is generous – instead of taking in, is giving out – that is courage. When war is being threatened or promised, when there’s much waving of knives and brandishing of cannon and rattling of sabres, and a person talks about peace, that’s courage.
Without courage, you can’t practise any other virtue consistently – you can’t be consistently fair, kind, generous, patient without courage. You can be any of those things erratically, spasmodically, for a few minutes, even for a day. But to be so constantly takes courage.
What are the influences or experiences in your life that have impressed that upon you so profoundly?
I was really fortunate to be the granddaughter of a wonderful woman, who took me when I was three and raised me – save for one disastrous six months of my life – raised me from three to 13. She was a very big woman, very tall – when she died, she was over six foot (as I am). She spoke very softly and was very kind, and she had the only black-owned store in her town. She had two sons, my father being one, and her other son was crippled: the whole of his right side was paralysed. She named the store for my uncle, so that he didn’t have to feel that he was at someone else’s sufferance: he was the owner of the W M Johnson General Merchandise Store. And my grandmother would ask him: ‘Now, Willie, do you think we should order more…?’
I saw that, growing up, and saw how large she was inside herself. She was a very religious woman and in difficult times she would say to me, ‘Sister, Momma’s just going to stand out on the word of God, just stand out on it.’ And she’d put her arms out and I could just imagine this tall black lady standing way up in the heavens with nothing underneath her that I could see, comets and moons and stars swirling around her, and she knew: she would be looked after. And that impressed me – still impresses me. She’s been dead 50 years and as far as I’m concerned she’s very much in this room with us.
I’ve seen evidence of kindness and generosity – and those have been the turning-points in my life which confirmed my own faith and my own belief in the work ethic and the possibility of being – not possibility, my privilege to be generous and kind.
There was a time when you didn’t speak for five or six years. How did that happen?
I was taken from my grandmother in Arkansas at seven to St Louis, and I stayed there with my mother’s people, and after a few months her boyfriend raped me. He was put in jail for one day and released, and a few days later the police came and told my maternal grandmother that he had been killed, and it seemed he had been kicked to death. At that moment I thought that my voice had killed him, so it was wise not to say anything at all, just in case my voice would go out and kill people. And so I stopped speaking.
You are one of the greatest living masters of words in the English language. What was it like to live for that length of time without speaking?
I’ve seen evidence of kindness and generosity, and those have been the turning-points in my life which confirmed my belief in my privilege to be kind and generous
Well, I did read. I read everything there was, every book in the black school to which I went, whatever there was I read, and I memorised. I memorised the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson,1Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote the song ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ which became known as ‘the Negro national anthem’. In 1912, he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and his own book of poetry, God’s Trombones, appeared in 1927. I memorised whole chapters of Dickens’ books, I memorised 60 Shakespearean sonnets, I memorised huge slabs of the Bible. Loads and loads. All of which refuses to be forgotten…
It was a terrible, terrifying time, but at the same time it afforded me an introduction to world literature, and somehow, thanks to God and a black lady in my town and my grandmother and my brother, I used the time.
Did your prayer life change in that silence?
I don’t really remember that. If I prayed at all during those years, it was to my grandmother. I was pretty sure she was God and just wasn’t telling other people. She was so kind, you know, and so patient – people could do all sorts of things, my grandmother would say, ‘Aaaah.’
I think my real prayers began after I had a child at 16 – or even before, during the pregnancy. And I would pray to the mother of Christ and say the Hail Mary prayer and say to her, ‘Now, you had a child. I’m going to have a child and I don’t know what to do. I need guidance, I need protection.’ And everything turned out all right.
But I counted on Momma, my grandmother, to pray for me when I was younger.
It’s clear from your writing that another experience that has given you courage is lost love. I was struck by a couple of passages: ‘The Gamut’ ends
Come you death, in haste, do come,
My shroud of black be weaving,
Quiet my heart, be deathly quiet,
My true love is leaving.
And ‘On Diverse Deviations’ ends: ‘Where love is the scream of anguish –
‘And no curtain drapes the door.’
It’s pretty wonderful to have enough courage to love. When you’re young, you don’t know that love liberates. Early on, passion is mistaken for love, and passion wants to own and control and have and consume and so forth. That’s what I really meant – this demand for possession.
In later years, you learn, ‘Oh, I see, I love you. I love you right here. But if you happen to be in Mongolia I’ll love you there. If you’re in Rome, that’s OK. In Durban or Cape Town, if you’re in Dar-es-Salaam, Beijing, Mexico City, I love you. I love you.’ That comes to you with age and wisdom.
But the excitement of young, sensual and sexual love is a fountain from which you can draw a lot of luscious waters, and I was draining those fountains at that time.
Do you think our culture doesn’t give us the resources to enjoy those fountains but move beyond them into the kind of love you speak about?
I don’t think so. I think we’re stuck in almost a juvenile, puerile understanding of love.
It has its place – men wouldn’t woo women and women wouldn’t woo men without it. It’s a good thing. But love is so much bigger and deeper and wider and broader than that.
You have spoken in the past of the difference between growing up and getting older. Can you explain?
You can become an old female or an old male, but that doesn’t mean you become a man or a woman. You achieve that status by accepting the responsibility of being human
If you don’t slip off the side of a mountain or get run over by a mad taxi-driver in New York City, you can become an old female or an old male, whatever your genitalia indicate you to be. But that doesn’t mean you become a man or a woman. A man or a woman achieves that status by taking responsibility for the time she takes up and the space he occupies, by accepting the privilege and the responsibility of being a human being.
And what that entails, of course, is confessing to one’s own self that every other human being is a human being, no less, no more.
Even the oppressor?
Even the oppressor. If he doesn’t know it, that’s his business, but I’m supposed to know it and supposed to know also that he – or she – is a child of God. I have to know that. Sometimes I resent him not knowing that, but really I just think life would be so much simpler if everyone knew. People in Boston and Bosnia and Birmingham are no better, no worse than I. They do have the capability of being worse by their actions, but their humanity – I can’t say that I’m more human.
You have said that the most delicious piece of knowledge you possess is that you are a child of God. You had a voice teacher, I believe, who made you say –
‘God loves me.’ That was in 1956, 46 years ago.
I did it this morning. I sat on the side of the bed and the tears came and I said, ‘I don’t know why, but I know God loves me. I have not done anything to earn it and I’ve blown it four billion times and I am so grateful.’ So grateful.
Does that just come to you?
It may come out of the blue. This morning, I was listening to something on television that made me turn it off (because the person was talking about outer space) and I just stopped and said, ‘God loves me.’
You obviously know of the power of testimony in the Christian faith, and most of your work is deeply personal. What do you think is the role of narrative and storytelling in transforming society?
Well, it’s interesting to see the great movements of religion: among Confucians, among Zen Buddhists, in all the world’s religions, the anecdote has power. Among some of the greatest teaching of Christ are the parables, which are anecdotes. He would give a parable to people and let them figure out what they might draw from this: ‘What is the lesson here by which I may live my life? What is the light here that allows me to go down this dark path?’
The narrative helps us to understand: ‘Ah! That happened to you? It happened to me – in a different way, in a different town and time; but now I understand, that really means that you and I are more alike than we are unalike. Ah!’ And the little proverbial lightbulb goes on over your head.
So, what testimony should we be giving today? You have talked about the rumblings of war…
Tell more stories about what it’s like. Tell the story about what men and women saw on fields of war. What did they experience when they smelt the gas – from World War I to World War II to the Korean War to Vietnam to…? What did people experience? How did it feel to shoot off a man’s legs? How did it feel to see soldiers trying to kill their children and rape their women? If we could tell these stories…
One of the most powerful storytellers was Garcia Lorca, who died mysteriously during the Spanish [Civil] War. If you just read his account, he is telling us some of the horrors, and at the same time the promise of peace, what it could be like. And then there was the great Bengali writer, Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel [Prize for Literature] in 1913, who told us about poverty and lack and loss and hate and love. Wole Soyinka – we need to hear them all.
Maybe what moves me most is the love of Christ: that he loved enough to find a way to save what he felt had to be saved.
In ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, the poem you wrote for Bill Clinton’s inauguration, you spoke about the kind of land you want to see, and to me you sounded almost like a modern-day David, delivering a political psalm…
Well, it was rather scary at first – I was scared all the time. To be told that Mr Clinton had been reminded that he could have any poet in the world and, I’m told, he had said, without taking a breath, ‘Get Maya Angelou’… And then they said: ‘He’d also like you to recite it on the steps in Washington.’ So, for three months I just holed up. I prayed a lot, and finally I came close to saying what I wanted to say.
You have been very honest about your struggles and doubts as you’ve grown and matured. I want to quote from a short poem of yours called ‘Saviour’:
Your agape sacrifice
is reduced to coloured glass,
vapid penance, and the
tedium of ritual…
Visit us again, Saviour.
Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
Now, what does that last sentence mean?
I really meant that people use the word ‘Jesus’, not the name. ‘Jesus’ becomes a word. We really need a visitation – and it can happen in the heart at any moment.
You are clearly attuned to many traditions and see the light that is present in many faiths and cultures, and yet Christ has informed your own vocabulary and your spiritual imagination. How is he unique for you?
Oh, I suppose the insight into the human being is that which moves me most. Maybe what moves me even more is the love of Christ: that he loved enough to find a way to save what he felt had to be saved.
And Christ was a great teacher. The parables, the ways he had of teaching us that we are better than barbarians, that we really don’t have to believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, that we really can love our neighbours as ourselves… It just lifts my heart, I can’t tell you.
You had a lot to do with the continuing liberation of your people, you worked with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Having been a part of that movement, what is your view of what’s happening now?
Well, we are better off than we were and we’re not one smidgen near what we have to be. The country is still riddled with racism and ignorance. We’re a little better off, but not a lot.
You get up in the morning and think: ‘I want to live a Christian life. Lord, help me!’ And in the evening you check yourself out and think: ‘M’mm. I only blew it 80 times’
Do you think the churches still have a crucial role to play?
Well, they go in and out of fashion. I don’t know yet what’s been happening in the weeks since our President began talking about war…
You’ve said that you’re taken aback when people tell you that they’re Christians. Why is that?
Because I think, ‘You’re that already?’ You know, being a Christian is being engaged in a process: it’s not an ambition you achieve and say, ‘Okeydokey, I have no more to do now.’ No, it’s really ongoing. In the morning you get up and think, ‘Lord, help me! I want to live a Christian life which is kind. I want to be soft-voiced, I want to be peace-searching, I want to be generous, I want to be healing. Lord, help me!’ And then in the evening, when you check yourself out, you think: ‘M’mm. I only blew it 80 times.’
The poem ‘My Guilt’ suggests that you feel a kind of ‘survivor’s guilt’:
My guilt is ‘slavery’s chains’, too long
the clang of iron falls down the years…
My crime is ‘heroes, dead and gone’…
dead Malcolm, Marcus, Martin King.
They fought too hard, they loved too well.
My crime is I’m alive to tell.
It’s just my feeling that more should have been done.
I still feel that. I still feel that the adults have a lot of explaining to do to young people. I feel for them so. They’re inheriting a world rife with cruelty, greed, vulgarity. Each of us should mourn, really.
You wrote a poem called ‘America’ in which you say the United States ‘entraps her children/with legends untrue’, and end
I beg you
Discover this country.
Yes. Somehow we have trod in timidity, so instead of telling the truth about slavery and its vulgarity – and Thomas Jefferson having slaves and being intimate with Sally Hemings and having all those children… To hear the historians speak, they never did anything, he was white as a bone.
We should know more about what Americans did to the Indians – and should have enough courage to say it: ‘This is where we went wrong. Here’s who we are. We are all this – we’re very good and very bad – and here we are.’
This is the country to discover, not some sanitised Hollywood idea of the noble pioneer on the noble plains. That’s baloney and we ought to see it. We’re grown. We ought to be able to stand up to the truth about history.
What is your response when someone says that the US is a Christian country?
I believe it means to be, and thinks it is. But to be a Christian is so much more than going to church on Sunday. It’s so much more than even giving a tenth of everything you own to the church – it’s so much more than that. It’s something in the heart. Something in the heart. Trying to be a Christian, working at it, makes you generous, makes you kind, makes you patient and understanding.
Is there something you have written that for you best captures your own spiritual struggle or aspiration?
Well. I haven’t thought of that. I suppose my poem ‘Our Grandmothers’ – among other things:
She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.
She searched God’s face.
she placed her fire of service
on the altar, and though
clothed in the finery of faith,
when she appeared at the temple door,
no sign welcomed
Black Grandmother. Enter here.
Into the crashing sound,
into wickedness, she cried,
No one, no, nor no one million
ones dare deny me God. I go forth
alone, and stand as ten thousand.
The Divine upon my right
impels me to pull forever
at the latch on Freedom’s gate.
…However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.
‘I shall not, I shall not be moved. I shall not, I shall not be moved. Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, I shall not be moved.’ Amen.
This edit was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Third Way.
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|1.||⇑||Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the first African-American to gain national eminence as a poet. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote the song ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ which became known as ‘the Negro national anthem’. In 1912, he published The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), and his own book of poetry, God’s Trombones, appeared in 1927.|
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Maya Angelou was born in 1928 and christened Marguerite Johnson. She was educated at Lafayette County Training School in Stamps, Arkansas and Mission High School in San Francisco, and won a scholarship to study dance and drama as a night student at the California Labor School. In 1945, she gave birth to her first and only child.
She had a succession of jobs in San Francisco, notably as the city’s first black streetcar ‘conductorette’, and in San Diego, as a nightclub waitress, prostitute and madam. She tried to enlist in the US Army but was rejected because the California Labor School was suspected of being ‘a training ground for future Communists’.
In 1952, she won a scholarship to study dance under Pearl Primus in New York (she also studied under Martha Graham). After working as a dancer and singer in clubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Hawaii, in 1954-5 she toured 22 countries as Ruby in a production of Porgy and Bess sponsored by the US State Department. In 1955, she taught modern dance at the Habima Theatre in Tel Aviv and at Rome Opera House.
In 1957, she appeared off-Broadway in Calypso Heatwave and recorded an album of calypso music. In 1960, she appeared in the Obie-award-winning play The Blacks and co-wrote and starred in the revue Cabaret for Freedom to raise money for Dr Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In the following year, she became the SCLC’s northern co-ordinator.
With the South African dissident lawyer Vusumzi Make she moved to Cairo, where she became associate editor of The Arab Observer. When her relationship with Make ended, she went to live in Accra in the newly independent state of Ghana (where her son was at college), working from 1963 to 1966 as assistant administrator in the University of Ghana’s school of music and drama, and also contributing to Radio Ghana and the Ghanaian Times. From 1964, she was feature editor of The African Review.
She returned to the United States in 1966 to help Malcolm X to create an ‘organisation of African-American unity’, but within days of her arrival he was assassinated. She wrote several plays, including The Least of These (1966) and the unpublished musical Adjoa Amissah (1967), and got a job as a writer-producer for 20th Century-Fox Television. Her output for TV includes Black, Blues, Black, a 10-part series for National Educational Television which she wrote, produced and directed in 1968, ‘Afro-American in the Arts’, a PBS special for which she won a Golden Eagle in 1977, and her full-length film Sister, Sister, which was shown on NBC in 1982.
She made her Broadway debut in 1973 in Look Away, which was nominated for a Tony, and two years later was nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actress for her role in the TV adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. Besides hundreds of appearances on the small screen, she also starred in the 1995 film of How to Make an American Quilt.
Her academic career in the US began in 1966 with some guest lectures at the University of California in LA. In 1970, she became writer-in-residence at the University of Kansas and a fellow of Yale University, and in 1974 she was ‘distinguished visiting professor’ at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Wichita State University and California State University in Sacramento. The following year, she was named a Rockefeller Foundation Scholar in Italy. In 1981, she accepted an appointment for life as the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
Her first of six volumes of autobiography, the novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1970 and nominated for the National Book Award. It was followed by Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986) and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002).
Her books of poetry include Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ’fore I Diiie (1971), which was nominated for a Pulitzer prize, Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), And Still I Rise (1978), Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? (1983), Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987), I Shall Not Be Moved (1990) and Phenomenal Woman (1995).
She is also author of Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), three books for children, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (1993), My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken and Me (1994) and Kofi and His Magic (1996), and the collection of essays Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997). Her journalism has appeared in many leading publications.
She has written two screenplays, Georgia, Georgia (1972), the first original script by a black US woman to be produced, and All Day Long (1974). For both of these she also composed the scores. In 1998, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta.
She has been honoured by three US presidents. In 1975, Gerald Ford appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Council; in 1978 Jimmy Carter placed her on the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year; and in 1993 Bill Clinton invited her to write a poem to read at his inauguration (her recording of which won her a Grammy). She was also asked to read her poem ‘A Brave and Startling Truth’ for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995.
She has been an honorary goodwill ambassador for Unicef since 1996. She has been given more than 30 honorary degrees and, among many other awards, has received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature and the National Medal of Arts.
Up-to-date as at 1 November 2002