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Saluting a living legend: Maya Angelou

LEGEND: Maya Angelou

EVERY NOW and again, an interview opportunity so rare comes along, that it almost beggars belief. Initially unable to believe my ears when PR reps informed me that Maya Angelou was available for interview, my initial response was, “who?”

At 83 years old and with a reputation that most definitely precedes her, the legendary US poet and author doesn’t need any hype or media publicity. Still, she graciously agreed to speak to The Voice, and as it turns out, Angelou is keen to have a chat with the media every now and again.

“I’ve looked forward to this morning and hearing what you have to ask,” said the author, famed for works including I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Still I Rise. “When I’m interviewed, I not only find out what the interviewer doesn’t know, I find out what I didn’t know I knew! That’s very exciting.”

Indeed, there is much to know about Angelou, who says she was “delighted” to be presented with the literary/arts prize at the recent BET (Black Entertainment Television) Honors by the US first lady Michelle Obama.

“I was surprised and delighted. When my name was said, I started to get up, and my assistant said, ‘No ma’am, not yet.’ So I sat back down hastily, hoping that the audience didn’t see me!

“Then, Cicely Tyson, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Willow Smith came out onto the stage and performed some of my poetry. It was amazing and they did such a good job. At the end, Cicely Tyson came to the edge of the stage and, looking straight at me, said: ‘My dear, you and I have trod these boards over so many decades and I am most delighted to introduce the person who is going to introduce you…’ I thought she was going to introduce me! But then she said, ‘Please help me to welcome our First Lady, Mrs Michelle Obama.’

“Then Mrs Obama came out with no notes, and spoke about my work and how it has had an impact on her and her husband over the years. I grinned right around my head. When one smiles, it stops at the ears – this one went all the way around my head!”

With a plethora of credits to her name, including writer, actress, historian and dramatist, Angelou is equally well-known as a civil rights activist, who, even now, remains outspoken about an array of issues and injustices, perhaps most notably, those affecting the black community.

Having worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960s, Angelou is no stranger to activism. A well-respected orator, she has spoken out to address an array of issues, from the way Dr King’s legacy is treated to President Obama’s critics to derogatory racial expressions in hip-hop.

For decades, Angelou has tirelessly spoken out against many injustices. Did she ever feel like throwing in the towel and opting for an easier life?

“I don’t think I thought of it in that way,” she laughed, with her warm, infectious laugh. “I guess there were other things I could be doing like writing a love poem instead of protesting against injustice, whether it’s racial, sexual or about age – any injustice.

“I’d like there to be a time when there’d be no need for that kind of work. I’d like to see a time when black history month doesn’t exist; when the history of African Americans, Asians, Latinos and so forth are all in one book about American history.”

Does Angelou think that day will come?

“It might come – I don’t expect it in my lifetime. But on the other hand, I didn’t expect to see a black president in my lifetime. So I’d be delighted if that happened before I take my leave.”

Recalling the buzz that was created when Obama was elected in 2008, becoming America’s first black president, Angelou says: “It still excites me. As your [English] cockneys say, it makes me ‘come over all queer!’”

Does she think Mr Obama is doing a good job?

“Oh yes. There’s no remuneration and no salary as great as a job well done. No matter what you do, whether it’s protesting in the street or cleaning your house or making a good dinner or working out a puzzle, there are few things as delighting as a job well done.

EARLY DAYS: Angelou in 1971 with her first autobiography

“I never know what to say to people who don’t work. When I meet people that are not doing anything, I feel… duh! I don’t know what to say.”

When one considers the many exciting and memorable paths Angelou has travelled, it’s perhaps not surprising that she says “never in my life” has she been bored.

Born in 1928 on April 4 – a date which, 40 years later, would become tinged with sadness when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 – Angelou went on to develop a love for the arts.

However, becoming pregnant in her teenage years and giving birth a few weeks after graduating from high school, Angelou worked as a waitress and a cook in order to support herself and her son.

Still, her passion for performance and poetry remained strong, and she went on to tour Europe in a production of the opera Porgy and Bess; dance with the renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey; and record her first album, Calypso Lady in 1957.

The years that followed led her to the motherland: first Egypt, where she served as the editor of the weekly publication The Arab Observer, and then Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.

During her time in Ghana, she met civil rights campaigner Malcolm X, and in 1964, Angelou returned to the US to assist him in building his newly founded Organization of African American Unity. Following X’s assassination in 1965 and the subsequent demise of his organisation, Angelou was enlisted by Dr King to be the northern co-ordinator for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Left devastated by Dr King’s assassination in 1968, it was with the help of her friend, author James Baldwin, that Angelou began working on a book that became I Know Why The Caged Bird Sing; the iconic autobiography – the first of six – which charted the author’s early years, encountering racism, becoming a young mother and discovering her love of literature.

Subsequent years saw the author racking up honorary degrees and last year, she received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from President Obama. So no, boredom isn’t a feeling Angelou can relate to.

“Life is too exciting and some things are too aggravating,” she says. “How can you be bored when somebody is abusing a child? How can you be bored when one person starts a job, and another person who has had the job for 20 years has to teach the new one, and the new one, because of their race or because they’re cute, ends up with the higher salary? You can’t be bored when things like that are going on.”

Passionate about standing up for what she believes in, Angelou also encourages others to do the same. In a recent video recorded by US channel BET, Angelou spoke of the importance of courage. Explaining that courage is something that is developed over time, she suggested that one of the ways to strive towards it is to “stop using racial pejoratives about yourself or anybody.”

Why does she feel that refraining from using negative racial terms is an act of courage?

“Well I really meant if you can do that in public, that’s courage. If you can say to a group of people, ‘I don’t like that word, I don’t want it in my home’ and you show them out, that takes courage. Or if you leave someone else’s house or leave the office… you have to be able to say, ‘I think those words were created to diminish a person.’ And that is not just racially.

APPLAUSE: US First Lady Michelle Obama presented Angelou with the literary/arts award at the BET Honors last month

“[For example] I won’t stand for the phrase ‘the blonde bimbo’. Who decided that because the woman has blonde hair, that she’s silly? That’s ridiculous. It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve heard. So at any time I find myself in company that makes those kinds of mistakes, I say ‘excuse me, I won’t have that.’ I can’t stay in company like that.”

She continues: “It takes courage to do that. So you do it in small things, like opposing vocal statements, which dehumanise another human being. Then the next time, there’ll be something bigger and bigger and finally, you’ll be able to say ‘nothing frightens me so much as something which takes away my courage.’”

With Angelou’s strong sentiments about racial slurs – particularly, the N-word – it’s no wonder she was “disappointed” when US rapper Common used the offending word on a track on which Angelou had agreed to contribute her voice.

After reading one of her works on the track The Believer, which features on Common’s new album, The Dreamer/ The Believer, it was later reported that Angelou wasn’t best pleased with the Chicago-born lyricist for using the N-word in his verses on the same track.

“I was disappointed,” Angelou confirms. “I won’t say I was angry, but I was disappointed. When I did the piece with Common, I had no idea he was going to use it [the N-word]. [But] I have not cut my relations with Common because I know that as long as you live, you have a chance to change.”

Referring also to his use of the word ‘b*tch’, Angelou adds: “He might decide next week that he will not use those words. He’s working towards that. So I will not sever my relationship with him. He’s a brilliant young man and, as far as I know, a good human being. So I won’t be surprised when he makes a statement that he will stop using the words.”

Reflecting on Angelou’s sentiments about an individual’s ability to change, I dared to ask her if she might ever change her views. Could there come a day when she is persuaded to accept the (albeit unusual) rationale held by some black people, which is that our use of the N-word is somehow empowering; enabling us to prove that we have reclaimed the word and taken away its original meaning?

“Well I’ve already changed,” she reasons. “There was a time when I was very young, when it was used indiscriminately by everyone, though in black homes in the Unites States pre-1950s, people would say, ‘You can’t use that word!’

“But something happened in the 1950s. Some black people decided, ‘Well I can use the word, but no-one from another race can use it. I’m one myself so I can use it endearingly.’

“Well, the word was created to dehumanise human beings. If you buy poison from a pharmacy, and the bottle has on it P.O.I.S.O.N with a [picture of] a skull and bone on the label; if you pour the contents into Bavarian crystal, it’s still poison.”

She continues: Some people feel you can take the venom out of the word. But the word is the thing. And in the Christian Bible, we’re told ‘In the beginning was the word.’ It’s interesting that the phrase often used by rappers to say ‘amen’ is ‘word’. So the word is the thing and that word is powerful. It shouldn’t be played with.”

Angelou’s eloquence with words is even more poignant considering there were six years when she spoke almost none at all.

HONOURED: Angelou receives a kiss from President Obama after he awarded her with the Presidential Medal Of Freedom last year

At the tender age of seven, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman. After confessing the assault to her brother, who told the rest of the family, Freeman was tried in court and sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Remarkably, Freeman was temporarily released after the hearing, but police soon arrived at Angelou’s family home to tell them her attacker had been beaten to death.

Believing that confessing the name of her attacker had ultimately led to his death, young Angelou decided to not speak another word to anybody but her brother.

“I had told his name to my brother, who told it to the family,” Angelou recalls. “The next thing I heard about him was he was dead. And the police said to my mother’s mother, in front of me, ‘It seems that he was kicked to death.’

“I was seven and I thought my voice had killed him, and so it was better not to speak. I thought that if I spoke, my words could kill anybody. I could only talk to my brother, who I loved so much and who loved me so much. My voice couldn’t hurt him. So for six years I spoke to my brother and nobody else.”

She continues: “After you stop [speaking], it’s almost intoxicating. Really. I felt I could go into a room and my whole body would become an ear and I could absorb all sounds. I learned to listen. I think that is one of my great gifts from God; I learned to listen. And because of that, I’ve learned to speak a number of languages. I really listen.

“In public, I listen to people speak and they are pleased with that. They realise, ‘oh, she’s listening to me.’ People are put at ease in my presence. They think ‘ooh, I’m gonna meet Maya Angelou’ and then they do so, and the next thing they know, they’re kicking off their shoes, saying, ‘We’ll have another cup of coffee please!’ It’s because I listen.”

With Angelou described in many different way throughout the years, it seemed fitting to ask her how she defines herself.

“Hmmm…” she says thoughtfully. “I know I’m a child of God. I’m trying to be a Christian; I’m working at it. I’m always amazed when a person says to me, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I always think, ‘Already? I’ve been working at it so long!’ It’s like being a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist – it’s not something you achieve and then rub your hands together in glee and say, ‘I’ve got it now.’ I work at it. So I’m working at being a Christian.

“I’m 83 years old and a television host once said, ‘growing old is not for sissies.’ So I guess I’m not a sissy! I’ve never changed my age to please anybody or displease anybody. I’ve never said I was 25 when I was 45.

“I also enjoy life and enjoy challenges. And I am a poet. Well… sometimes I poet,” she laughed, before adding, “This is true: years ago, Muhammad Ali was being interviewed by a writer at his training camp and the writer said to Mr Ali that he wanted to run with him. So the next morning they ran together, and they did the same the next morning. But the writer was not in shape.

“By the third morning, the writer said, ‘listen man, I’m not an athlete. I’m a poet.’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘man, I poet myself!’

“So sometimes, I poet myself.”

For more information on Maya Angelou, visit

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