Legendary poet and writer Maya Angelou talks about her new book, Letter to My Daughter, and our changing world.
Marianne Schnall: What made you decide to write this book, Letter to My Daughter?
Maya Angelou: Well, I had started about 20 years ago making notes about subjects I wanted to talk over with Oprah, just one liners or two liners, about things that the next time we got together I wanted to be sure I tell her my thinking on this or that. And I threw all of that into something I call "Works in Progress" - it's a box called "WIP". And last year I went to see what did I have in there, along with suggestions for poems, songs and I looked and I thought, "Hmm, there's an essay here" and "Hmm, there's an essay there". Hmm. [laughs] I was encouraged by the notes themselves to write some words to some women who expect me - I think, from their letters to me - expect me to have something wise, or at any rate, considered, to say about issues they have obliged to confront. So that's why I wrote the book.
MS: What would you say is the essence or the message of the book? What are you hoping that readers will come away with?
MA: Well, hmm. I tried not to say what I had learned. I notice in a couple places, I did. But I think that each of us is so much alike, and yet at the same time we are so different, and I have a feeling that if you encountered difficulty, and I with my age encountered the same difficulty, I would respond one way, and you would respond another. Neither would be right or wrong. It's just that each of us is courageous, and that's what I encourage, courage, and the courage to see, and the courage to say to oneself what one has seen. Don't be in denial.
MS: I have two young daughters myself. What message would you most want to instill in young girls? What do you wish you had known as a child?
MA: That one, courage. Also, I encourage courtesy. To accept nothing less than courtesy, and to give nothing less than courtesy. If we accept being talked to any kind of a way, then we are telling ourselves we are not quite worth the best. And if we have the effrontery to talk to anybody with less than courtesy, we tell ourselves and the world we are not very intelligent.
MS: Just yesterday I interviewed Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. At one point she talked about the importance of knowing yourself. She said, "Sometimes we become bound by other people's thoughts because we are not sure about ourselves" and that "when you know who you are you are free." Do you agree? And how does one go about discovering who we are, and living ones life authentically, with so many stereotypes and influences on us?
MA: Well, I think that we see how we can fall and rise. You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn't run away - I rose right where I'd been knocked down. And then that's how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That's it. That's how you get to know who you are.
MS: I remember you had said in Letter to My Daughter, "You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them."
MA: Exactly. Exactly. It's raining like buckets here today. If friends were coming here for lunch, and especially if it was someone who was a fashionista, and she had plans to wear that particular costume for that particular period, and stepped out the door to encounter these sheets of rain, you may have to step back in to change what you are wearing. Or, get an umbrella and continue knowing that your hair is going to either get very curly or very straight. So you have to deal with what you encounter. But you must not be reduced. And so a way not to be reduced is don't whine! Don't let the incidents which take place in life bring you low. And certainly don't whine. You can be brought low, that's OK, but don't be reduced by them. Just say, that's life. And I've done that many times. And before I die I will probably have the occasion to do that many more! [laughs]
MS: We also should make sure to celebrate when wonderful things do happen. I saw some of your emotional appearances after Barack Obama's win. Did you ever imagine that you would live long enough to witness that?
MA: Never. Never. And yet somewhere, obviously I must have known. I know that my people did, because they couldn't have survived slavery without having hope that it would get better. And there's some songs from the 19th and 18th century that say [sings], "By and by, by and by, I will lay down, this heavy load." And I mean, so many songs that spoke of hope and understand it better by and by. Amazing songs. So that the slaves, just knowing that he, she, did not have the right legally to walk within one inch away from where the slave owner dictated, and yet the same person, wrote and sang with fervor, "If the lord wants somebody, here am I, send me." It's amazing.
MS: It really is. It feels like a new world.
MA: Yes, indeed.
MS: And there's something also beautiful about the fact that Obama was not just elected, but elected decisively across racial, and socio-economic and cultural groups and that we all celebrated in his win. MA: Exactly. Exactly.
MS: How do you feel when you look out at the world today?
MA: I feel very hopeful. I feel very hopeful, very expectant. I'm looking forward to it.
MS: There seems to be a growing movement around issues such as anti-war sentiment, awareness about global warming, and world poverty - a growth in awareness and compassion and a sense of responsibility - do you think humanity is experiencing an evolutionary shift to a new paradigm?
MA: I think so. I think we are making it very clear to people, whether they want to hear it or not, or whether they would like to think of this as some fluke, just sort of a drop in this misery of history - wrong, wrong. People are saying: this is what I will stand for. And I will not stand for any less than this. It's amazing. We are growing up. We are growing up! Out of the idiocies - the ignorances of racism and sexism and ageism and all those ignorances.
MS: What do you think is the root cause of all the problems we have in the world today?
MA: Well, ignorance of course. But most, polarization. You see, it's a long time arranging this sort of condition. And it will not be over in one term, or even two. But we are on the right road. If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman. And won't mind the enslavement. The second thing you must do is convince your allies that the person is subhuman so that you have some support. But the third and the unkindest cut of all is to convince that person that he, she, is not quite a first class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator can go back years later and ask, "Why don't you people like yourselves more?" You see? It's been true for women, it's been true for immigrants, it's been true for Asians, it's been true for Spanish-speaking people. So now we have to undo. We know this - and we have to undo these lessons which have been learned by all of us. And not just taught to us - but we've learned them. And so it will be no small matter. But we can undo it. We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
MS: You talk about that so much in your book - and yet there are still so many ways we divide ourselves, by religion, race, gender, sexuality, nationality - are you hopeful that humanity will ever come to see ourselves as one human family?
MA: Yes, but it will be a long time. I think so. But that's all right - it's a wonderful goal to be working towards.
MS: Do you feel like women around the world are awakening to a sense of their own power and a need in the world for their influence??
MA: Yes, I think so. I think so. We can see, from California to New York, from Maine to Florida, Seattle to New Mexico - everywhere there are women's groups. Everywhere there are women who have gotten together to examine global warming, and women who have gotten together to prepare each other for single parenting - there are women who have come together to be supportive to those whose mates are in prison, male or female, partners are in prison. All sorts of gatherings of women. I mean, I'm just celebrating my 80th year on this planet, and I look back 50 years ago and there was nothing like that. Nothing. There were African American groups, and the white groups really had more to do socializing, and fashion and what is trendy, I mean other than the DAR and that group of people. But for the most part, there were very few betterment groups, really for the betterment of the woman who had nothing, the white woman in Northern Virginia, or West Virginia in the mountains, to live on what is to be scraped from strip mining. You know, really. Or the poor Asians, the poor Hispanic women. But now, everywhere I go, there are groups! And that's very heartening.
MS: There seems to be a growing realization that empowering women helps us all, and also about the importance of nurturing "feminine" values, even in men.
MA: Absolutely. A few weeks ago I talked to my editor. And we've been together 40 years. And so I asked him how his wife was, since she'd been a little sick and they live in New York. And he said, well she's down in North Carolina. And I said, "She's in North Carolina, doing what?" I mean, I lived in North Carolina, why on earth... And he said, "Oh, she's over on the coast. She's doing some door-to-door volunteering for Obama." Now, he doesn't know it, but he's a man with certain control needs - but he said, this is her decision. And they're both white Americans. And he's my age, and she's about 20 years younger, in the fifties I guess. But she decided that's what she wanted to do. I never heard her speak up like that! But that is a part of the need for, and the offering of, the women, the female's assessment, females' advice, females' wisdom.
MS: I know you have gone through some dark times in your life, but you have accomplished so much and are such a beacon of light and inspiration. Where does your own strength and courage come from?
MA: Well, I had a fabulous grandmother. And my mother. I have some sister friends. And it's very hard for me, as I approach the holidays because sister friends who meant the world to me have died and we always at least got together during the summer, and then at Christmas. But I have had them. I mourn only because I wish I still had them. But I have had them and they have influenced and strengthened my life. And when I want to think about what would be the right thing to do, the fair thing to do, the wise thing to do, I can just think of my grandmother. I can always hear her say, "Now sister, you know what's right. Just do right!"
MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at life that guides you?
MA: Yes. All of us knows, not what is expedient, not what is going to make us popular, not what the policy is, or the company policy - but in truth each of us knows what is the right thing to do. And that's how I am guided.
MS: What advice would you give to people who are going through something painful or are feeling frustrated or depressed - what would you say to give them hope?
MA: Well, I would say, look what you've already come through! Don't deny it. You've already come through some things, which are very painful. If you've been alive until you're 35, you have gone through some pain. It cost you something. And you've come through it. So at least look at that. And have a sense to look at yourself and say, "Well, wait a minute. I'm stronger than I thought I was." One of my friends who's dead is a woman named Jessica. She's a sister friend to me. And she told me about 25 years ago - I was bemoaning that my writing just didn't seem to have this melody to it, and was treating myself to a little pity party. And Jessica said, "Maya, just take any of your books out of the library right now and just sit down and have a glass of wine. And open it up anywhere." And I did that, and within 15 minutes I thought, "I can write!" What? See? So we need to not be in denial about what we've done, what we've come through. It will help us if we all do that.
MS: Speaking of your writing, you've expressed yourself through so many different forms of art: dancing, acting, writing, poetry - what is the role or value of art in our society, as a form of media and human expression?
MA: Well, it reminds us that we are not just flesh and blood. And that our hungers are not going to be set aside as just flesh and blood. That indeed we have souls. And if a person is religious, I think it's good, it helps you a bit. But if you're not, at least you can have the sense that there is a condition inside you which looks at the stars with amazement and awe. That listens to water with a river flowing, or water falling in rain and is lifted up by that and listens to a wonderful singer, wonderful musicians, listens to maybe Duke Ellington or Frank Sinatra or listens to Odetta and Mary J. Blige. Yes, and thinks whoo! And thinks, yes, hmm, all right now. My soul has been washed. I feel better, I feel stronger. Listen to some good poetry. You see? It keeps us from thinking we are only what our blatant appetites describe us as.
MS: What advice would you have for the budding writer or poet or artist?
MA: I would say, find something you like, go into a room, close the door and read it aloud. Read it aloud. Everybody in the world who likes dance can see dance, or hear music, or see art, or admire architecture - but everybody in the world uses words who is not a recluse or mute. But the writer has to take these most common things, more common than musical notes or dance positions, a writer has to take some adverbs, and verbs and nouns and ball them up together and make them bounce.
MS: What do you think is the source of your own inspiration and energy?
MA: Well, hmm. I'm a religious woman. And I feel I have responsibility. I have no modesty at all. I'm even afraid of it - it's a learned affectation and it's just stuck on me like decals. Now I pray for humility because that comes from inside out. And what humility does for one, is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come, but who may be here and needs me.
MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?
MA: I wish that we could look into each other's faces, in each other's eyes, and see our own selves. I hope that the children have not been so scarred by their upbringing that they only think fear when they see someone else who looks separate from them.
Marianne Schnall is a writer and interviewer who has worked for many publications. Marianne is the founder of the women's site Feminist.com and the co-founder of EcoMall.com, an environmental site. Through her diverse writings, interviews and websites, Marianne hopes to raise awareness about important issues and causes.