First transmitted in 1994, Jeremy Isaacs asks the American writer Maya Angelou about her life, her writing and her hopes for the future.
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JEREMY ISAACS: 'Maya Angelou,
'in your life you've been all sorts of things -
'cook, a conductorette on a tram car,
'a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, a singer,
'an actress, a civil rights activist, a writer.
'What's given you most satisfaction?'
I'm a writer. That's what I do.
Um, I'd identify myself to myself as a writer.
I love the sound of the human voice.
And I love the way
we try to translate ourselves to each other by language.
I love it.
I speak a number of languages
because I do like the sound of the human voice.
But I also like the... the mystery of language.
That just... It... It... It's got me.
I can't get loose.
'At President Clinton's inauguration, you wrote and performed a poem,
'On The Pulse Of Morning, and you were the first poet
'to do so at an inauguration since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy's.
'What does that poem, that you spoke then, say to us?'
It says, in effect,
what all my work, I hope, says.
I mean, it is...
I hear pundits explain that
writers may say they have six or eight volumes in them,
or ten, maybe, but they have one theme.
Well, if I have one - I think I have two -
but one theme is that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
And in everything I write,
whether it's music and lyrics for Roberta Flack
or BB King, or poems or books or essays,
all I'm trying to say,
or what the main thesis is,
is human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
So in the poem On The Pulse Of Morning, I introduce that thesis.
'What's the other main theme you have?'
Well, the second, and it may be the first,
it depends on what time of day I'm talking... But the other is that
we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.
That, in fact, it may be necessary to encounter defeat
so we can know who the hell we are, what can we overcome,
what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise and go on.
I know that a diamond is a result of extreme pressure.
Less time and less pressure
and it's just crystal or coal or fossilised leaves,
or just dirt.
But time and pressure will create a diamond, not...
I mean, it is considered one of the most beautiful elements
and it's one of the hardest elements on our planet.
'A Rock, A River, A Tree, hands working together.
'Another poet, Norton Tennille, has claimed that he wrote
'and published ten years ago, a poem that contains the same themes,
'the same structure and some of the same language.
'Did you respond to that?'
No, I didn't. And I wouldn't.
I think in his poem...I read the poem after he claimed. He used the word
"rock" and he used, I think, a tree or river, but many poets do that.
And, um... they were not in that sequence.
Somewhere in his second verse, he said "a river" or something.
he and another fellow seemed to have decided that they will
ride my back into some sort of fame.
I used the rock, the river and the tree
because in all my work I go to the African-American canon
for themes, whether I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
or... All my books are entitled, and my poetry, I reach back.
In the 19th century there was this song about the rock,
which is still sung in Black churches. It's...um...
# Oh, I went to the rock to hide my face
# Rock cried out, no hiding place
# No hiding place down here... #
So in my poem, I say the rock says, "You may stand on my back,
"but don't hide your face."
And the river is from two songs. It's from...
# Deep river... #
But it's also from, um...
There's a... Mm, The River Of...
'The River Of Jordan?'
I mean, everybody knows the song, it's, um...
I Will Study War No More.
# Oh, I... #
No, I'm thinking of river, a rock. It's...
# I'm going to lay down my sword and shield
# Down by the river side Down by the river side
# Down by the river side
# Lay down my sword and shield Down by the river side
# To study war no more. #
So in my poem, I say the river sings,
and says, "If you will put down your arms and study war no more...
And then the last poem, the last image...
- 'The tree.' - ..is the tree.
And it was my grandma's favourite song.
And she sang...
She was a tall woman, over 6ft... Taller than I, and I'm 6ft.
And she sang...
# 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
# Oh, I shall not be moved. #
So those are the three.
And throughout the poem, I continue that theme,
that if you will plant yourself
beside me, here beside the river,
and study war no more, then, you know...
- 'Do you think America listened...' - ..you might survive.
'Did America listen to your poem?'
Yes. A number of people listened to the poem.
- 'I mean...' - Heard it, yes.
A number of people have heard it.
And were inspired by it.
But the poem has been translated, I'm told, into some 41 languages.
So, um...a lot of people have heard it.
'Before you'd written a book at all,
'a publisher told you it was hard to write autobiography as literature.
'But The Caged Bird is certainly literature,
'and fine literature at that.
'Was it hard to write?'
It was very hard.
I was suckered into it.
I mean, you know how the pugilists talk about "a sucker punch"?
Well, I had gone with James Baldwin to Jules Feiffer's house,
and Jules was then married to a woman, Judy,
and all three of them were wits
and were big talkers.
So I had to fight for the right to play it good.
The next day, after the evening
of great fun and revelry and copious libation
and so on, this woman, Judy Feiffer,
called the man who became my editor and said,
"If you could get the poet Maya Angelou
"to write a book about her life,
"you would have something." So he phoned and I said, "No."
He asked me a second time, I said, "No."
So I went out to California, I had written ten one-hour programmes,
a series, for PBS.
And Bob Loomis phoned the last time, he said,
"Well, Miss Angelou, I'm just glad
"you don't try to write an autobiography,
"because to write autobiography as literature is impossible."
So I said, "Well, let me try!"
But I'm sure James Baldwin had called him,
because that's something...
Even now, I still jump when that button is pushed.
I'm not proud of that.
I would like to become, to grow into the person who says,
"Oh, you pushed that button, I shall not jump."
But I haven't grown that far yet.
'Was it hard to remember?
'Had you buried the memories of your early life?'
I don't think so. Um...
I have a strange kind of memory,
and I think it is a physiological difference in my brain.
Because I didn't speak for years.
And I think those areas of the brain which would have dealt with
the vocalisation and articulation of ideas had gone.
I think that the brain just went somewhere else.
It just said, "OK, I'm not jumping from here to there
"so I'll jump from here to there."
And I have a strange kind of memory.
A lot of the people I've written about are still alive.
'Tell me... I talked to a writer the other day in this series,
'the English writer and novelist Jeanette Winterson, and she said,
'"There's no such thing as autobiography.
'"There's only art and lies."'
I love that! Well...that's good.
'Do you reckon you're...?
'To what extent is the book a construct
'and to what extent is it reportage of what actually happened?'
Oh, no, I think that that's a wonderful statement,
because all art is lies, all lies are art.
It's like all riddles are blues and all blues are sad.
Or funny, or something.
I mean, you can't say that...
that I have spoken truth to you,
even though I say this is a red blouse.
Now, red to me may mean something utterly different to you.
And so, my attempt to translate, to describe what I see,
may be so absolutely different.
What I mean by square may mean something other than
what you mean by square.
- Um... - 'Tell me...'
Let me just finish this. I love that.
..that people can tell so many facts that they obscure the truth.
You can describe the places where, the people who, the times when,
the methods how, et cetera.
And never get to the truth of the matter.
You just blind people with data and numbers and stuff.
But the heart of the thing is lost, or beshrouded.
Now, I have no hesitation in trying to get to the truth of the matter.
And putting five or six facts and pieces of data together,
to try to show,
"Look at this, look at this, this is human, this is who we are,
"this is what we can stand."
So, art and lies, I like that.
'Tell me about your childhood. Who was your father?'
My father was Bailey Johnson.
My father was born to a woman who was a...a tree, really.
I mean, she was...
And at 16, he left home, he left this little village in the South
where my grandmother owned the only Black-owned store in the town.
He left and joined up, put his age up and went to World War I.
And learnt French.
And came back much too grand for his skin,
for his skin colour at the time.
He thought that he...
He was handsome, he spoke French,
he was debonair and he would've been lynched in the South.
So he became a doorman at a swank hotel in Los Angeles.
And he wore a uniform.
I have photographs.
He wore the uniform as if he was a major in the army.
It was just...
'And your mother? Who was she?'
My mother was a very pretty woman from St Louis and, um...
who loved him quite a lot.
Fortunately for myself, for my brother,
for the welfare and weel of my country, they separated soon -
they were absolutely too volatile to be together.
But she was a very pretty woman
and a very bright woman, and very courageous.
'She worked hard and sent you, when you were three, away.'
- Yes. - 'She sent you to your grandmother.'
- To my paternal grandmother at that. - 'Right.'
'Was there any sense of rejection on your part at that time?'
Absolutely. I thought it was the worst thing.
I just declared her dead,
so that I wouldn't have to long for her.
Um...yes, it was terrible rejection.
My brother has never recovered.
'What was your grandmother like?'
She was just the best.
She spoke softly.
She walked very straight.
And she was severe.
So that people who owed us money really disliked her.
Because she never gave anybody...
She didn't seem to have any laxity in herself -
physically, or in her personality.
It was one way, that was the way.
So I got a whipping once when I was very young,
because I said, "By the way," to my brother.
My grandmother whipped me.
She said... I mean switched, you know.
But she said, "Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Light,"
and I had said, "By the way," which meant "by Jesus",
which was a way of saying, "By God,"
and she would have no cursing in her house.
So I mean, she was just...stern.
'Your mother sent for you back to St Louis.'
'And at the age of seven or eight...'
'..seven, you were raped by one of her boyfriends.
'There's an extraordinary brief passage in the book
'in which you describe that experience.
- 'Can you repeat it?' - I can't repeat it.
'Do you mind if I repeat it? Cos it brings...'
Let me try to tell you about it.
I know that he was longing...
This is not an apologia for him,
but I know that he was intoxicated with my mother.
Most men were, for years.
And she lived outside, and she was funny and clever and cute and that.
And I think in his rage at his inability to control her
and have her when he wanted, I think he raped me in rage.
I don't condone that.
But as an adult, I try to understand what provokes
and impels people into and out of things.
'At the time, it was an appalling trauma.
'How did you recover from that?'
I don't know if I've ever recovered.
I operate in the familiar.
And because I don't carry the bitterness of it,
I've not been as wounded...
I was terribly wounded at first,
but the wounds become scars and the scars become...sacr...
Well, just...little pieces of cosmetics.
'Is that the advice you would give to people
'whose dear ones suffer such a trauma?'
I would say to everybody, whether the dear one
or the person herself or himself,
I would say, do your best not to...
give passage and harbour to bitterness.
Bitterness is stupid.
It's like cancer, it eats upon the host.
Doesn't do a damn thing to the object.
So try not to be bitter, cos that's silly.
I mean, that's a waste of energy, and almost a waste of life.
To be angry is very good, I think.
Anger is like fire, it burns things out,
and leaves nutrients in the soil and so forth.
I think that's good.
We should always be ready to be angry at injustice and cruelty.
But not to be bitter.
'You told the rapist's name,
'and the next day, I think, he was beaten to death.'
- Well... - 'Was that a direct consequence?'
Well, he was put in jail, and he was freed in one day.
He was put in jail, and he spent one day.
And the police came by my maternal grandmother's house
and told her that he had been found dead,
and it seemed he'd been kicked to death.
I was seven and a half.
I thought my voice had actually killed him.
..I stopped talking.
It seemed to me it was very dangerous.
That if my voice could kill people like that, then if I spoke,
anybody might just get downed.
I felt I could speak to my grandma, and sometimes I did.
'You took a conscious decision not to speak.'
And you held to that for how long?
Almost six years.
'How did that affect your schooling?
'You went back to Stamps in Arkansas, how did...?'
I was an A student.
But you see, also, my grandmother, again, owned most of the land.
And Momma was Momma.
So all the teachers who came... It was the South,
and there were no boarding houses for Black teachers.
They would come from the big city, like Little Rock or Pine Bluff,
to this village, and they would have to live with people,
you know, who had houses.
Well, as soon as the teachers would move in, they would be told,
"Sister Henderson's granddaughter doesn't speak."
So I wrote everything on the blackboard.
I had a tablet which I tucked into my skirt,
and if I had a dress I would have a belt.
Tie belt, and tuck it in.
And I wrote everything.
- 'And you read.' - I read.
'And you say that you discovered Shakespeare at Stamps.'
Yeah, at about ten. Nine or ten.
It was amazing.
I couldn't believe that he was White!
Because, I mean, his language was complicated,
but I read the sonnets, and I memorised 50 sonnets.
But the one, one of them...
I mean, I loved a number of them, but the one that made me think,
"How could he know what it feels like to be me?" is -
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone bemoan my outcast state
And trouble a deaf Heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate
Wishing me like one more rich in hope
Featured like him Like him with friends possessed
Desiring that man's art and that man's scope
And with what I most enjoy contented least.
How could he know that, almost five centuries earlier?
Oh, no. I mean, I wouldn't have been too surprised
if somebody had shown me that he was really a Black girl in Stamps.
'The Ku Klux Klan were at work
'in your childhood, in your town.'
- Were people scared of them? - 'Absolutely.'
And in my town, they didn't wear sheets.
They didn't have to.
They had such power that they could ride over into the Black area,
threaten, kill and maim people,
just because they didn't agree with God's choice
for the colours of the people's skin.
And they didn't wear sheets.
'And when you stood up to them -
'or rather, when you expressed your views to White people
'in the other part of the town -
'your family told you that was dangerous, and said to shut up...'
- And get out. - '..and take care, and get out.
'Did your mother ever talk to you
'later on in your relationship with her about the rape?
'Did she feel responsible for it
- 'in any way?' - Not a word. She really...
She was a very passionate woman, very...
She held her anger like...
some people hold banners. Flags.
She was very proud of her anger. It described her to herself.
'It was her boyfriend, she never apologised to you for what happened?'
No. She wouldn't have... I mean, no.
No, she wasn't that sort of person.
'You had both a glamorous, loving, working mother,
'and also a very strong grandmother.
'You had a supportive extended family.
'Is that characteristic of Negro society?'
Well...I had a wonderful uncle, too. And I think...
And my brother, of course.
But my uncle was very supportive and very encouraging.
He believed I could do things.
And, er, I have to mention his name.
'Do those sort of hopes still persist in the South?'
In some places, yes.
In the areas where they don't, we see the statistics,
the painful taunting, the tales of brutality
- and random violence and that. - 'You mean in the inner cities?'
Yes, and in the South as well.
'Er, you became the first Black conductorette.
'How did you get that job?'
Well, I wanted a job, and I was 16...
I was 15, and, er...
..my mother said, "Go get a job."
And I was ahead in my classwork,
and I'd been down visiting my dad to disastrous results.
And so my mom said I could work for the next three months.
So I wanted to get a job on the street cars
because I saw women on the street cars.
I didn't notice that they were only White.
But they had changers, coin changers.
And wore caps with bibs, and jackets.
They looked just it.
So I thought, "I'll get myself a job."
I was 6ft tall and White people
didn't know how Black people looked anyway, how old one was.
So I went down and they wouldn't even accept...
I mean, they wouldn't give me a form, an application form.
I came back home devastated, to my mom.
And she asked me, "Do you know why they wouldn't?"
I said, "Yes, because I'm Black."
She said, "That's right. Do you want it?"
I said, "Yes." She said, "Go get it."
So, she said she would give me lunch money and car fare and I should go
every day and be there before the secretaries go in,
and sit there and read.
Go out to lunch, but be back before the secretaries, wait at the door.
Well, by about the fourth day I was so tired of this thing,
I wanted to give up, I wanted to go home.
But Mom... I mean, Mom, she asked me, "Do you want it?"
I said, "Yes." She said, "Get it."
So I couldn't fold, you know?
I really was tired of it, but I stuck it.
And after a month, I got the job.
'Looking for sexual experience, you asked a young man
'to have intercourse with you and got pregnant.'
'Was it easy to be a mother at the age of 17?'
Well, it wasn't easy.
But my mom didn't put me down.
I mean, I didn't let her know until three weeks before my child was born.
She delivered him.
She asked me, "Do you love the boy?"
I said, "No." She asked, "Does he love you?" I said, "No."
She said, "well, then, there's no point in ruining three lives.
"We have a baby, we're going to have a baby."
And, um, my son...
I mean, if I have a monument in the world, my son is my monument.
He says I shouldn't say that, that he should be his own monument.
But he's not here, I can say it!
'Later on, hard put to earn a living, and for other reasons,
'you became briefly a prostitute.'
Well, it wasn't...
I think it was...because...
the fellow I liked told me he was desperate.
And I was so green!
I mean, I was 18 or something.
I think at 18, people probably should all be put out in pens, you know!
Fresh meat thrown to them until they become acclimatised and socialised.
I tell you why I wrote that, though.
I wrote about that in a book called Gather Together In My Name
because so many adults told, and tell, young people,
"I've never done anything wrong.
"My closet is free of spectres and ghosts and skeletons.
"My dad would've killed... My mother...
"I was so good."
And so young men and women must think,
"Damn, there's something wrong with me.
"My parents are so good and so pure."
So I thought, they could all gather together in my name.
I would tell the children, "Listen, I've done this.
"This has happened.
"I have forgiven myself, I have gotten up and this has happened."
I was afraid that when I told it that there would be a sort of worldwide,
or certainly nationwide, sneering at me.
Just the opposite.
Just the opposite happened.
People were so grateful that somebody told the children, "Listen, dear,
"you may make many mistakes, you may be defeated,
"but you must not be defeated.
"You may encounter defeats."
'How did you avoid the mistake of getting on to heavy drugs?'
Well, a man was very kind to me.
A man who used drugs, who was a boyfriend.
He took me to a...
where they shoot up drugs.
And I didn't even know he used drugs.
But he took me, and he brought me into the bathroom
and leaned against the door so I couldn't get out.
And he rolled up his sleeve and he took his tie.
And I started crying.
He said, "Watch it, look at this."
And he fished around with the needle.
And I was crying and he just forced me to look.
And finally he found the needle...the vein.
And he untied this tie.
And you could see the drugs.
I mean, you could see his face.
Almost like in slow motion.
Almost like a melting down, like a Dali-esque painting.
You could see the tension go out.
He said, "Now, do you want some?"
So I've never been tempted, I have never sniffed it or smoked it or...
That was a very kind thing for him to do.
'You were a dancer, you discovered you could dance,
'and you performed in the great, famous tour of Porgy And Bess.'
'Did you know you could be an entertainer of that quality?'
I had studied dance,
and I always thought I would do something quite wonderful.
Whatever I did, I was going to do it as well as I could.
I thought at one time I was going to become a real estate broker
and have my own briefcase
and high-heeled matching shoes.
I was going to do that.
'One of your marriages, a marriage to a member,
'I think, of the Pan-African Congress, took you to Cairo.
'Then from there, you went on to Ghana.
'What did you learn about the world in Africa?'
I was quite surprised to find that a number of Africanisms, or what
I thought were Afro-Americanisms, really had their origin in Africa.
I had been up on the soapbox with everybody else, including Malcolm,
saying that our culture was taken from us by slavery.
Not so. Not so.
So many things I had grown up knowing and in using - ways of speaking,
ways of moving, ways of treating other people -
I found to be Africanisms.
That was a fabulous experience.
I got off a plane in Kano, Nigeria.
I had taken the Egyptian airline to Kano.
I got off the plane and a young Black man, in white shirt, white knickers,
epaulettes, a cap...
I'd never seen a Black man on a tarmac
in anything other than a cleaning uniform.
And this fellow saluted as the people deplaned,
all the Europeans and Egyptians.
"Good afternoon. Welcome to Kano. Welcome. Welcome."
And when I came down,
a beam of smile went right to his ears and he said, "Welcome, Auntie."
I thought, "Wait a minute."
But that's how I would have been addressed
by a young person in the South.
'Have your books changed the way that Black Americans see the world?
'Or the way that we see Black Americans?'
Some people say so, it's not for me to say that.
'You've often been described as a feminist writer.
'Are you a feminist writer?'
Well, I'm a female and I'm a writer.
Um, I don't know if that's so.
'You once said that feminism didn't offer much to Black American women.'
Oh, well, maybe that was early on.
I don't know about feminism, anyway.
I know about woman-ism.
I know something about that.
Sometimes, feminists can be...
Feminism can be...not very inviting.
And I like very much...
I like being a woman...a lot.
And being a Black American woman even more.
I do know that there's a difference between being an old female
and being a woman.
Born with certain genitalia, if you live long enough
and don't get run over by a truck or eaten up by a lion or something,
then you can be an old female.
But to be a woman...is so inviting.
It's the same being a man.
You can have certain genitalia and live long enough,
you'll be an old male.
But to be a man is to have some grace and some humour, some passion,
It's a wonderful thing.
'Is there anything you regret in your life, anything you regret not doing?'
Hmm, that's a waste of time, isn't it?
I don't know.
- 'Do you have fears, at all?' - Mm-hm.
I feared coming on this programme.
'I hope you're not frightened now.'
Mm, I will be over my fear when the programme is finished.
No, but really, I have agreed that I will die.
I admit that.
Once I get that far, I'm all right.
Because I understand that is the big bugaboo,
and I will do that, ready or not.
So if I can do that, and will, then...
'What's the task you've set yourself before you die?'
I want to... So many things.
I want to be a Christian.
That's a really hard matter.
It's like being a Jew or a Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist.
I'm always amazed when people walk up and say, "I'm a Christian."
I think, "Already? Damn!"
I'm working so hard at it, to BE it.
I really would like to BE it,
a kind person, an inclusive person.
Not just...just, but merciful.
I'd like that.
I blow it all the time and I probably will die not having come close to it,
but I love it.
So that may help.
That may go down up in heaven on my side.
'How would you like us to remember you?'
As a...woman who is mostly funny,
cheerful, with some courage.
And who has enough courage to love somebody.
'Are you in love now?'
Yes, yes, yes!
Yes, I am in love. Yes!
First transmitted in 1994, Jeremy Isaacs asks the American writer Maya Angelou about her life, her writing and her hopes for the future. What unfolds is a frank and sometimes shocking account of her journey to becoming an established author.