Accessibility links

Breaking News

What It Takes - Maya Angelou, Part 1


What it Takes - Maya Angelou
What It Takes - Maya Angelou Part 1
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:34:14 0:00


00:00:09 MAYA ANGELOU: I grew up in a town in Arkansas smaller than the exposed part of this stage.

00:00:16 And I was small and strange because I stopped talking from the time I was seven-and-a-half until I was twelve-and-a-half.

00:00:27 ALICE WINKLER: The cadence is unmistakable. It only takes a few words to know when you’re listening to the voice of Maya Angelou.

00:00:36 MAYA ANGELOU: I was known to be weird, but black Americans didn’t call me weird. People would see me in the road. My grandmother owned most of the land behind the town, most of the land the poor whites lived on, most of the land the blacks lived on, and the only black-owned store in the town. And so people had many reasons to be angry with Mama, since Mama was severe. So people disliked my grandmother.

00:01:06 I understand that. They’d see me in the street and say, "Mm-mm. It’s a shame Sister Henderson’s California granddaughter has gone mental."

00:01:16 Or "Mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm! Shame Sister Henderson’s California granddaughter, you know."

00:01:27 So they didn’t actually say I was weird, but I was pretty weird, and I understand that. However, Mama explained to me all the time, "Sister, Mama doesn’t care what these people say about you being an idiot, about you being a moron."

00:01:48 "Mama knows, when you and the good Lord get ready, sister, you’re going to be a preacher." I used to sit there and think, "Poor, ignorant Mama."

00:02:01 “I mean, really...

00:02:05 ...I will never speak! What does she mean, preach? Oh, what a shame and disappointment Mama has in store for her.”

00:02:19 ALICE WINKLER: Well, she didn’t exactly become a preacher, but her mother was right. Words became her divine instrument, her poems, her memoirs, and her performances a kind of benediction. Maya Angelou, who died in 2014, was a sage and officially a national treasure. President Obama gave her the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he introduced her, he mentioned that his own sister was named after her, and he said Angelou had risen with unbending determination and spoken to the conscience of our nation.

00:02:58 PRESIDENT OBAMA: By holding onto her humanity, she has inspired countless others who have known injustice and misfortune in their own lives. I won't try to say it better than Maya Angelou herself, who wrote that: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream."

00:03:29 ALICE WINKLER: This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. On this episode, we mine the Academy’s vast vault of recordings to bring you Maya Angelou.

00:03:46 I’m Alice Winkler.

00:03:48 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:03:53 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:04:00 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:04:04 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:04:12 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:04:20 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:04:25 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:04:38 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou was a member of the Academy of Achievement, and she spoke at a number of Academy events during the 1990s. During those talks, she didn’t give much detail about the traumas of her early life or, for that matter, about her extraordinary years as a writer, a performer, and a civil rights activist.

00:04:57 All that had been documented already very well in her seven memoirs, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Instead, she talked about the lessons she’d learned from overcoming odds that were clearly stacked against her, lessons that might help others. These Academy of Achievement events were for students from around the country, and Ms. Angelou’s heart was never bigger than when she had the chance to inspire young people.

00:05:28 As you listen, you'll occasionally hear a question from someone in the audience, but we'll start with Maya Angelou herself, here explaining why, as a child, she suddenly fell silent.

00:05:40 MAYA ANGELOU: I spoke until I was seven-and-a-half. And then, at seven-and-a-half, I was raped, and the man — I told the name of the rapist to my family. He was put in jail. He was out the next day, and the next day he was found dead. And I thought that my voice had killed him, so I stopped speaking for almost six years.

00:06:03 I had voice, but I simply refused to use it. So I was what was called a volunteer mute. After two or three years, I forgot why I stopped speaking. I just didn’t talk, and it was the love of poetry and a mentor who drew me out of myself. She told me I loved poetry. I wrote about it. I wrote it, bad poetry, admittedly — the worst west of the Rockies — bad, bad poetry.

00:06:32 But I had a tablet, which I kept in my belt, and I wrote everything. Anytime anybody asked me anything, my answers were written, and this woman told me — Mrs. Flowers in Arkansas. She said, "If you really loved poetry, you would speak it." She was the one who had started me to reading it, and then she said, "Until you feel it come across your teeth, over your tongue, through your lips, you will never love poetry, so I don’t want to hear you speak. I don’t want you to tell me. I will not read anything you write."

00:07:08 And I wept for six months, and I mewled around and pewled around, and she kept harassing me until, finally, I went under the house with a book of poetry, and I tried to speak, and I had voice. And as you see, I’ve almost not stopped talking.

00:07:33 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou was not the name she was born with. Her given name was Marguerite Annie Johnson. Her brother nicknamed her Maya. The rape she describes was in 1935, and the man who assaulted her was her mother’s boyfriend. It was her uncle who killed him in revenge. Years after Angelou rediscovered her voice, she won a scholarship to study dance and drama at the California Labor School. That’s also where she got her first taste for political activism. Angelou graduated at sixteen, just weeks before giving birth to a son named Guy.

00:08:13 She wouldn’t take money from her mother, and she wouldn’t go on welfare, so she began the life of a single mother, working as a waitress and a cook and making herself read, she says, a lot. She also spent time, it’s worth mentioning, as San Francisco’s first black female cable car conductor. Somehow, at her core, she felt she was destined for success.

00:08:38 MAYA ANGELOU: I did. I thought I was going to be a successful real estate broker.

00:08:44 I wanted to have a briefcase and wear high heel shoes and carry gloves. That was...

00:08:50 ...really my dream. That would have made me successful, I thought, at about eighteen or nineteen.

00:08:55 ALICE WINKLER: The jobs she did go on to have, by the 1950s, included singing in a nightclub, acting in the European tour of Porgy and Bess, dancing with Alvin Ailey on television, and recording an album called Calypso Lady.

00:09:12 MUSIC: RUN JOE

Mo and Joe run the candy store

Telling fortunes behind the door

The cops grabbed Mo, and as Joe ran out

Brother Mo, he began to shout

Run Joe, hey, the Man's at the door

Run Joe, the Man, he won't let me go

Run Joe, run Joe, as fast as you can,

Run Joe, these police, holding me hand

00:09:32 ALICE WINKLER: For years, she had been composing song lyrics and poems. And by the end of the 1950s, still not yet 30 years old, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and took her place alongside James Baldwin and the other young African American writers and artists connected to the Civil Rights Movement. She appeared Off-Broadway with James Earl Jones, Lou Gossett Jr., and Cicely Tyson.

00:09:59 She produced and performed a cabaret for freedom with comedian Godfrey Cambridge to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Maya Angelou reveled a little in her own achievements before this audience of students, not out of a lack of humility but to show what was possible.

00:10:18 MAYA ANGELOU: When you know you are of worth — not asking it but knowing it — you walk into a room with a particular power. When you know you are of worth, you don't have to raise your voice. You don't have to become rude. You don't have to become vulgar. You just are, and you are like the sky is, as the air is, the same way water is wet. It doesn't have to protest.

00:10:58 You know, it is said that the young people have become cynical. Darlings, let me tell you something. One of the saddest things in the world is to see a cynical young person because it means that he and she have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. It is so sad.

00:11:24 We need you so desperately. Not enough adults have told you, "You are all we have. Everything we've done, negative and positive, has been for you. You are all there is for us." And not enough adults tell you that, but we should tell you that every morning, while you're brushing your teeth, while you're pulling on your jeans, while you're having your breakfast, while you're on the bus, on the streetcar, on the subway. Some adult should be telling you, "Darling, you're the best we've got, and we need you."

00:12:06 Young men and women, it is important for you to know that you are worth it. In fact, all of your lives have already been paid for. It is imperative that you know that. Singly know it. It is wonderful to be a part of this marvelous group, but each of us is always and finally and painfully alone at certain times of our lives. And when we're young — we can never be so alone again as we are when we are young.

00:12:43 So in your aloneness, know that you have already been paid for — whether the ancestors came from Ireland in the 1840s, 1850, trying to escape the potato blight; whether they came from Eastern Europe, trying to escape the pogroms; whether they came from Asia in the 1850s to build a country, to build the railroads, and were not allowed legally to bring their mates for eight decades; whether they came from South America, trying to find a better place, a better land, so that they could make a better life or better lives for themselves and their progeny; whether they came from Africa, lying spoon fashion in the filthy hatches of slave ships —

00:13:34 They have already paid for you without any chance of ever knowing what your faces would look like, what personalities you would carry, what dreams, what magnificent breakthroughs you would make. You have already been paid for. So in your silence, in your solitude, it is imperative that you know, when you face the microscope which doesn't reveal immediately your request; when you look at the yellow pad if you’re trying to write a piece of poetry and know that all you’ve got to do is get some nouns, pronouns, a few adjectives, some adverbs, and so forth, and they won’t come together for you —

00:14:20 No matter what you do when you are absolutely alone, go inside yourselves, I encourage you, and understand that you have already been loved. And then, all you have to do is prepare yourselves. Always prepare yourselves so that you can go out and pay for someone who is yet to come.

00:15:00 STUDENT: Have you ever been mistreated because of your color? And if so, what do you think about it?

00:15:05 MAYA ANGELOU: Well, yes, indeed, yes. A black person grows up in this country — and in many places — knowing that racism will be as familiar as salt to the tongue, and that, also, it can be as dangerous as too much salt. I think that you agree that you must struggle for betterment for yourself and for everyone.

00:15:34 It is impossible to struggle for civil rights — equal rights for blacks — without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air. We all have it or none of us has it. That's the truth of it.

00:16:00 I was very young in that little village in Arkansas, and there was a movie house downtown. Downtown consisted of one paved street, and there was a movie house. And the girl who worked selling tickets lived on land my grandmother owned, and I knew for a fact that she and her family hadn't paid any rent for three years.

00:16:30 They lived behind the town on our land. I went up to get a ticket. I may have been about eight or nine. My grandmother was very religious and didn't believe in the movies, but once, she allowed me and my brother — every now and again. We went up to get a ticket, and the girl took my dime, and she wouldn't put her hand on it. I put it down. She had a cigar box, and she took a card and raked my dime into the cigar box.

00:17:06 Now the white kids got tickets. She took their money, and she gave them little stubs. She didn't give us anything. She just motioned, which meant that we had to go up the side steps — outside steps — and crawl through a really crummy little door and sit pitched on these three or four benches to watch the movie — and all because I was black. And I thought, "Well, I don't think I'll be going to the movies a lot." So I decided to boycott the movies.

00:17:47 But that was the first time I can remember, and I must have been about eight or nine. I cried a lot, and my brother, who was — well, he's always been the genius in my family. My family came closest to making a genius when they made my brother. He was a year-and-a-half older than I, and he told me they were stupid. They were ignorant. They were foolish.

00:18:12 It didn't really — I mean I agreed with all that because I knew he was smart; he would know. But it didn't diminish the hurt.

00:18:23 MS. WALLACE: And you knew it was — you did not take this personally? You knew it was because you were African American?

00:18:29 MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, but that's personally. Absolutely. I knew that if I was blonde and white-skinned that that wouldn't happen to me. It happened to me, Maya, who was black. There's a poem. Listen to this: it was written by Countee Cullen. It's called “Incident.”

00:18:49 "Once riding in old Baltimore, head filled, heart filled with glee, I saw a Baltimorean keep looking straight at me. Now I was eight and very small, and she was no whit bigger, and so I smiled, but she stuck out her tongue, and called me, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ I saw the whole of Baltimore, from May until December, and of all the things that happened there, that's all that I remember."

00:19:37 STUDENT: My question is for Maya Angelou: Were you influenced by other African American speakers, such as Frederick Douglass?

00:19:45 MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, I certainly was. I love Frederick Douglass, and I teach him. I teach his work now in North Carolina, where I live, at Wake Forest University. I love the fact that Frederick Douglass said, "He who says he wants freedom, and does not want to work for it, wants the ocean without the awful roar of its mighty waters, wants to have harvest without the turning over of the soil."

00:20:16 So what that told me and tells all young people today is if you want freedom, you must work for it. If you want a good life, you must work for it. Don't expect anybody to give it to you. Now that doesn't mean that we don't owe you, as young people, clean streets and good housing, but you have to work, too. You must.

00:20:44 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou's own work against racism in America took off in those heady days as an artist in Harlem, but she developed a more international perspective during her many years living in Africa as a journalist and a teacher. When she returned, she joined Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement in an official capacity. She also marched in the Women's Movement, and she advocated for marriage equality in the Gay Rights Movement.

00:21:12 MAYA ANGELOU: The truth is very important, no matter how negative it is. It is imperative that you learn the truth, not necessarily the facts. I mean that can come, but the facts can stand in front of the truth and almost obscure the truth. It is imperative that students learn the truth of our history. However sad, however mordant, however terrible, we must know it.

00:21:41 The only way out of something is all the way through it. You must see it, read it, study it, and then you can pass through it, you see. It is imperative that young white men and women study the black American history. It's imperative that blacks and whites study the Asian American history. You should know that the Asians built these railroads, that they were brought here, as Maxine Hong Kingston said, to “Gold Mountain” in the 1850s and 1840s, unable legally to bring their mates for eight decades.

00:22:19 It's important that you know that. Otherwise, how can you make friends? Only equals make friends. You see?

You need to know the pogroms. You need to know what happened in Russia and in Poland and in that area. You must know it because you are living next door to, being taught by, or going to teach or marry somebody who is a descendant from that group of people. You need to know it. Don't hesitate to learn the most painful aspect of our history.

00:22:54 My heart is so heavy when I see the reality of the Indian reservation. And as an American, I know I'm, too, responsible. I am an Indian. I am everything. And so, at once, I feel for the poverty and take great delight in the woman who says, "I want to raise my children in the traditional way so that they will love the earth."

00:23:35 I see us in the most complex, enigmatic puzzle, which, of course, is life. The need we have to see ourselves in each other and admit what we see is so great. The Native American will only be able to break that cycle when the larger society says, "These people are Americans and deserve everything all Americans have."

00:24:16 The black American will only be able to break this cycle of poverty and violence and child abuse and early death through drugs when the larger society and the African Americans say, "I and they deserve everything, everything good." And until we do that, we are putting Band-Aids on somebody's throat which has just been cut.

00:24:46 I hope these young men and women will take this moment to try to talk together. Many of you can hardly articulate what you really feel, and yet your hearts are full. Talk. Use the language, men. Use the language, women. That is the only thing which really separates us from the rats and the rhinoceros.

00:25:10 It is so that — the ability to say how we feel. "I believe this. I need this." Start to talk. Please. Well, you know, I love you, and I am really overcome.

00:25:31 CALLER: Hi, Dr. Angelou. I was wondering...

00:25:32 MAYA ANGELOU: Good morning.

00:25:32 CALLER: ...as a black woman, is there any one scripture or poem or saying that has been able to sustain you in moments of challenges or adversities or difficulties?

00:25:43 MAYA ANGELOU: Well, yes. Some of them are mine, of course — “And Still I Rise,” which is a poem of mine that is very popular in the country, and a number of people use it. A lot of black people and a lot of white people use it — which, it begins, "You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise."

00:26:14 So there is that poem, and it goes on, and then a poem just for women, which is called “Phenomenal Woman,” and I love the poem. I wrote it for black women and white women and Chinese women and Japanese women and Jewish women. I wrote it for Native American women, Aleut, Eskimo ladies. I wrote it for all women, very fat women, very thin, pretty, plain.

00:26:47 It says, "Many people wonder where my secret lies.

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size. When I try to show them, they think I'm telling lies. I say, ‘It's in the reach of my arms, the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I'm a woman, phenomenally.’"

00:27:15 CALLER: Would you consider running for political office? Because I feel your talents are being wasted if you're not helping our country in a politic form.

00:27:24 MAYA ANGELOU: Thank you very much for the statement. I still have not realized my talents. I believe that each of us comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory. So at this wonderful, young age of 65, I don't know yet what the Lord has for me to do. I try to live up to the energy and to the calling. But I wouldn't dare say I have even scratched the surface yet.

00:28:00 As for political office, I am not qualified, really. I am an artist. I am a poet.

00:28:09 ALICE WINKLER: But as a poet, Maya Angelou was honored at the highest levels of American politics, not just by President Obama when he gave her the Medal of Freedom, but also by President Ford, who appointed her to the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, and by President Carter, who invited her to serve on the Presidential Commission for the International Year of the Woman.

00:28:32 And then there was President Clinton, who asked her to write a poem for his first inauguration in 1993. It was only the second time a poet had ever taken part in a presidential inauguration. The first was Robert Frost, reading at John F. Kennedy's. Angelou's poem for the occasion, “On the Pulse of Morning,” wasn't a favorite of literary critics, but it wowed the public, and it brought Maya Angelou broader and even greater renown.

00:29:03 Here she is reciting it in her navy blue cloth coat on the dais, with Bill Clinton glowing behind her. It's six minutes long, so I'll just play you the end.

00:29:14 MAYA ANGELOU: “Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream. Women, children, men, take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most private need. Sculpt it into the image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness.”

00:29:46 “The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day, you may have the courage to look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then. Here, on the pulse of this new day, you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister's eyes and into your brother's face, your country, and say simply, very simply, with hope, ‘Good morning.’”

00:30:32 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou was feeling optimism that cold January morning in 1993, but then again, part of what was so stirring about listening to her voice was the quiet sense of power and righteousness and love she always spoke with. She was not naïve. She had endured some of the worst in her own life and in the life of our country, and she had come out the other side.

00:31:00 For the next 20 years, until her death at 86, she kept writing, kept teaching, kept speaking. She inspired another generation of poets, too, including a lot of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B, who felt a kinship with her message and the rhythm of her speech. And even through the infirmities of her old age, Maya Angelou kept fighting for the dignity and equality of humanity, all of it.

00:31:28 When she was asked during this Academy of Achievement event whether she had hope that that would be achieved in her lifetime, this is how she answered.

00:31:39 MAYA ANGELOU: Well, we have to want it. I don't mean say we want it. I don't mean like it. But we have to need it, understand that we need it. There's a Zen story about a man who studied with a master — or mistress — for a while, and told the master, "I want the truth." And the master said, "All right." And he lived with him, and he sent him out, and he cut trees. He said, "Now, cut trees for a while."

00:32:13 So the fellow cut trees for about six or eight months, and he finally said to the master, "I've been asking you for the truth." He said, "Oh, that's right." He said, "You haven't told me anything." He said, "That's right." So he said, "Now, go out and turn all those trees into charcoal." So he did that for about six months, and the man never spoke to him. Finally, at the end, he said, "Listen, Master, I'm leaving you. I told you I wanted the truth." The master said, "Let me walk with you a way."

00:32:41 He walked with him until they came over a bridge. Under, there was rushing water. The master gave him a shove. He went over. The guy went down once. He said, "I can't swim!" Down again, "I can't swim!" The third time, the master pulled him up onto the side and said, "Now, when you want truth the same way you wanted that breath of air, you've already got it."

00:33:06 ALICE WINKLER: Truth-teller, writer, professor, poet, and performer, Maya Angelou.

00:33:12 MUSIC: CALYPSO BLUES

00:33:16 ALICE WINKLER: The recordings you heard in this episode were made in 1991, '94, and '97 by the Academy of Achievement. Our next episode will also feature Ms. Angelou. We could listen to her forever. She'll be paying tribute to her friend Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. That episode will be released in two weeks in time for the 30th observance of the MLK holiday. I'm Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement.

00:33:46 Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes, and thanks to you for listening.

00:33:52 MUSIC: CALYPSO BLUES

END OF FILE

Your opinion

Show comments

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.

XS
SM
MD
LG