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Maya Angelou

An Interview with Poet
Maya Angelou

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

That voice!—low, honey-warm, sultry, distinctive—every word carefully selected and articulated, every thought a weighing of intention and effect. Yes, this is the woman whose epigrams for Hallmark cards can take important ideas and press them into concise and telling lines, such as, If you must look back do so “forgivingly”; if you will look forward, do so “prayerfully”; but the wisest course would be “to be present in the present gratefully.” She loves the challenge of composing the epigrams, an activity she refers to with a slightly guttural laugh, as “delicious”—except that for her, the pith of the prose—or poetry—must always be an expression of love, compassion, benediction. Her fluency and joy are even more surprising, as readers of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings recall, that she was for five years, beginning when she was 8, mute, traumatized into silence by having been raped and then feeling guilty when the criminal was murdered. Just as remarkable is her heartfelt conviction that all God’s children are human beings—despite plenty of proof to the contrary for a child growing up in dirt-poor Stamps, Arkansas in the 30s and 40s, confronting racism, poverty, and low expectations. But she speaks only of being “grateful” for her life, for her paternal grandmother, Momma, her great and wise mentor, and for her beloved older brother Bailey.

“The first” could well be a standard epithet for Dr. Maya Angelou (nee Marguerite Johnson) whose breakthrough accomplishments as an African American woman in so many disciplines have won her great praise and numerous awards in this country and abroad. Nouns tumble out in no particular order for she has typically pursued more than one calling at a time: poet, playwright, film and stage actress, best-selling author, newspaper editor, historian, presidential appointee to various commissions and councils, songwriter, dancer, director, singer, educator (she has 55 doctorates), although one identity—civil rights activist—might be said to preempt many of the others. Still none of these professions even in the aggregate define the essence of a woman who has become an icon for so many, especially for those who lost or never had any reason to value themselves. They sense in her one who has “been there” and who has emerged with an extraordinary sense of love for all human beings.

As though eight decades of a challenging and rich living were not already enough, Dr. Angelou continues to try to make a difference, especially for new generations of youngsters, in her role as Reynolds Professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC where she teaches a master class, World Poetry and Dramatic Performance. Teaching is extremely important to her and teaching literature an affair of the soul. “To educate is to liberate,” and great teachers “remind people of what they already know instinctively,” though they have wonderful allies in great literature. Bad teaching is learning by rote and, even if unintentionally, conveying an attitude of condescension. She is sorry to say so, but she does—there are teachers today who humiliate, insult, or remain indifferent or insensitive to their struggling young charges, many of whom have no stable home. They punish instead of reward, even demanding that poor behavior and performance be met by extra reading assignments. What a distortion of literature, what a block to inculcating self-esteem! “Youngsters may do wrong but they know in their heart what is right.” How sad not to appeal to their basic humanity, she says repeatedly. She is “grateful” that she and Bailey loved to read and to read aloud to each other. She is also eternally “grateful” to Momma who taught, never be cruel, always look to good and act on constructive impulses. You will talk, Momma told the mute eight-year old, braiding her hair, “when you and the good Lord are ready.” The course Professor Angelou teaches reflects that heritage. She tells her students (who come from all disciplines) that in two weeks they must learn 27 poems. “They gasp, and then they learn . . .50!” And, when, for example, black students recite Burns or Dickens and white students perform her own work or read Walter Mosley, they get to know characters from the inside, they get to feel the universality of the human condition.

The hour is late—”I know how old I am, I feel it in my bones, “ she chuckles—but Dr. Maya Angelou has miles to go before she sleeps. She’s got plans for at least through 2008, when she will be 80—more books, essays and poems, and then a sojourn in Joplin, MO where she intends to act on a childhood prophecy that one day she would teach and preach. As for the immediate present, admirers, if they haven’t already, should check out her latest publication, a unique collection of childhood memories with Momma in the kitchen: Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (Random House). These include, among other goodies, Momma’s “smothered chicken, and though good friend Oprah Winfrey might say the dish is a bit, well, overcooked, that’s only the culinary part. The loving motive is nothing if not admirably well done.#



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