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What It Takes - Maya Angelou, Part 2

What it Takes - Maya Angelou
What It Takes - Maya Angelou Part 2
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00:00:02 ALICE WINKLER: A decade before Maya Angelou published her first and now classic book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, she was a civil rights activist and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

00:00:14 MAYA ANGELOU: The dream of Martin Luther King, for me, represents the best the human being can hope for: a world of peace, of development, a world of respect, a world where all men and women are valued, none higher than the other, none lower than the other because of his or her color or his or her race or his or her religion or cultural persuasion. That is the best we can hope for. I think this is the dream of America.

00:00:53 ALICE WINKLER: In the last episode of What It Takes, we heard Maya Angelou talk to students about the lessons she'd learned over the course of her life, lessons about resilience and joy that sprang from her childhood trauma and from living in the Jim Crow South. In this episode, as we approach the 30th observance of the MLK national holiday, we'll hear Angelou talk about what she learned from Dr. King.

00:01:18 This is What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I'm Alice Winkler.

00:01:29 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:01:35 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:01:41 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:01:46 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:01:54 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:02 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:07 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.

00:02:17 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou, who died in 2014, was a writer, a poet, an actress, and a professor. She was also a member of the Academy of Achievement, and in the 1990s, she spoke at several of the Academy's Martin Luther King Day events held for students around the country. So here are excerpts of Dr. Angelou, as well as the voices of young people eager to soak in her wisdom, her spirit, and the unforgettable sound of her voice.

00:02:47 MAYA ANGELOU: Dr. King was a human being. It is very dangerous to make a person larger than life because then young men and women are tempted to believe, "Well, if he was that great, he's inaccessible, and I can never try to be that or emulate that or achieve that." The truth is, Martin Luther King was a human being with a brilliant mind, a powerful heart, and insight and courage, and also with a sense of humor. So he was accessible.

00:03:29 I mentioned courage, and I would like to say something else about that, finding courage in the leaders and in you who will become leaders. Courage is the most important of all the virtues because, without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You see? You can't be consistently kind or fair or humane or generous, not without courage, because if you don't have it, sooner or later, you'll stop and say, "Eh, the threat is too much. The difficulty is too high. The challenge is too great."

00:04:15 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person for the first time in 1960. It was the year of the Greensboro sit-ins and the year Ruby Bridges, with four federal marshals, walked into the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Maya Angelou had come to New York the year before as a successful singer and dancer and a single mother of 31 in order to focus on her writing.

00:04:43 She had joined the Harlem Writers Guild, and it was in Harlem that she and her good friend comedian Godfrey Cambridge went to see Dr. King. She described that pivotal day in her life in her memoir The Heart of a Woman. Here's a bit of it from the audiobook version.

00:05:00 MAYA ANGELOU: “The listeners didn't move. There was a yawping expectancy under the stillness. He was here, our own man, black, intelligent, and fearless. The introduction was over, and Martin Luther King Jr. rose. The audience collectively lost its composure. Pews scraped against the floor as people stood, rearing back, pushing, leaning forward, shouting, ‘Yes, Lord! Come on, Dr. King! Just come on!’”

00:05:33 “Martin Luther King walked to a position behind the podium. He raised both hands. It was at once a surrendering and a quelling gesture. The church became quiet, but the people remained standing. They were trying to fill their eyes with the sight of the man. He smiled warmly and lowered his arms. The audience sat immediately, as if they had been attached by invisible strings to the ends of his fingers.”

00:06:04 “He began to speak in a rich, sonorous voice. He brought greetings from our brothers and sisters in Atlanta and in Montgomery, in Charlotte and Raleigh, Jackson and Jacksonville. ‘A lot of you,’ he reminded us, ‘are from the South and still have ties to the land.’ He said the South we might remember is gone. There was a new South, a more violent and ugly South, a country where our white brothers and sisters were terrified of change, inevitable change.”

00:06:40 “They would rather scratch up the land with bloody fingers and take their most precious document, the Declaration of Independence, and throw it into the deepest ocean, bury it under the highest mountain, or burn it in the most flagrant blaze than admit justice into a seat at the welcome table and fair-play room in a vacant inn.”

00:07:07 ALICE WINKLER: When she and Godfrey Cambridge left, they knew they had to do something. They agreed that they had the talent and connections to put on a show to raise money for the cause. They recruited their friends in the entertainment world, and they asked the owner of the famous jazz club The Village Gate whether they could use the venue. The show was called the Cabaret for Freedom, and its success led to her becoming the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

00:07:34 Angelou only held the job for six months before she moved overseas. I'll get to that story in a bit. But it secured her place as a member of the inner circle of the Civil Rights Movement.

00:07:46 MAYA ANGELOU: Dr. King was not only a deep and profound man — I mean a great thinker and a great philosopher and a great religious person — but he was also very funny. Unfortunately, a number of people who speak of him never mention his humor, and so, somehow, they put him beyond the reach of young men like you. He had a wonderful sense of humor, so he took himself seriously by being always aware that in order to live, you must be able to laugh or you become so dour and heavy, and you act as if you've put airplane glue on the back of your hand and stuck it to your forehead, you know.

00:08:31 And walk around, "I'm serious." Well, that was never Dr. King. So that fact that he had enough courage to enjoy humor is with me today.

00:08:44 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou said she tried to emulate some of Dr. King's other qualities, too.

00:08:49 MAYA ANGELOU: I don't think modesty is a very good virtue if it is a virtue at all. A modest person will drop the modesty in a minute. You see, it's a learned affectation, but humility comes from inside out. Humility says there was someone before me, someone found the path, someone made the road before me, and I have the responsibility of making the road for someone who is yet to come.

00:09:18 Dr. King was really humble so that he was accessible to everybody. The smallest child could come up to him. The most powerful person could come up to him. He never changed. You know, I mean if somebody very rich and very powerful said, "Dr. King, I want to speak to you," he was the same person to that person as he would be to one of you who is 16, 17, who would say, "Dr. King?" He was still accessible, gentle, powerful, humble.

00:09:59 Dr. King was profoundly intelligent. That is to say, he was able to see, to examine, to analyze, to evaluate, to measure the climate of the times, the expediency of his calling, of his ministry. That's intelligence. Now intellect, of course, helped him to be able to explain what he saw with grace and eloquence and wonderful quotations, whether from Paul Laurence Dunbar or Longfellow.

00:10:40 ALICE WINKLER: And of course, it helped him become one of the greatest orators to ever live.

00:10:45 MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American Dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

00:11:20 MAYA ANGELOU: The music of the “I Have a Dream” speech is a replication of the music which comes out of the mouths of the African American preacher — preacher, singer, blues singer, jazz singer, rap person. It's so catching, so hypnotic, so wonderful that, as a poet, I continue to try to catch it, to catch the music.

00:11:53 And if I can catch the music and have the content as well, then I have the ear of the public. And I know that that's what Martin Luther King was able to do, not just in the “I Have a Dream” speech, although that has become a kind of poem which is used around the world, but in everything he said. There was the black, Southern, Baptist or Methodist preacher singing his song, telling our story. Not just black American story either, but telling the human story, and I mean that — if, as a poet, I can replicate that, then “I'm okay, Jack!”

00:12:43 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou listened to King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech from Ghana, where she was living in 1963, and here's what happened. Right around the time she started working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New York, she fell in love with a South African freedom fighter, married him, and followed him to Egypt. In Cairo, she worked as editor of the English-language paper The Arab Observer, covering the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. But Angelou's marriage didn't last long, and she ended up moving to Ghana, where her son was in college.

00:13:17 She became part of the tight-knit exile community there, which included W.E.B. Du Bois. Ghana is also where Maya Angelou got to know Malcolm X when he came to speak. The two became fast friends, and she started helping him plan for an organization of Afro-American unity, but by the mid-1960s, when she returned to the United States, he'd been assassinated.

00:13:43 MASANI GILLIAM: In your opinion, what were the differences and similarities between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?

00:13:48 MAYA ANGELOU: Now first, what is your name?

00:13:50 MASANI GILLIAM: Masani.

00:13:50 MAYA ANGELOU: Masani what?

00:13:51 MASANI GILLIAM: Gilliam.

00:13:52 MAYA ANGELOU: Ah-ha. At first, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were much more alike than they were unalike. Their methods of achieving the ends were different. Martin Luther King had been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of nonviolent struggle.

00:14:17 Malcolm X had been influenced by the head of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, and, of course, had lived a different life, too, had lived in the streets and in prison. So his modus operandi was a different one than Martin Luther King’s, but essentially, at heart, they were very much alike. They wanted the best for their people.

00:14:44 Now, Malcolm said for his people, but he changed, too. And if you read the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Mr. Haley, you will see, toward the end of the book, where I am mentioned in the book — because Mr. Malcolm X came to Africa, and I was able, along with others, to help him to meet all of the Africans of power in Ghana at the time.

00:15:16 He said that he was coming back to the United States to say that he no longer believed that all whites were blue-eyed devils, that just being born white did not make a person evil. Now that took a lot of courage because he had said so, so many times, and so eloquently and with so much passion. But he changed, so that when he changed, he became, again, more in line with Martin Luther King than he had shown earlier. They were very much alike.

00:15:53 ALICE WINKLER: When Maya Angelou came back to the U.S., she reconnected with the Civil Rights Movement, which was, by then, focused on economic justice as well as racial equality. Dr. King asked Angelou if she'd tour the country with him to promote his Poor People’s Campaign. She was excited to help but asked to wait until after her 40th birthday, which was coming up on April 4, 1968. It turned out to be the very day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

00:16:24 Maya Angelou got the news as she was cooking a feast for her friends. She did not celebrate her birthday again for many years. She doubled her commitment to writing. The next year, she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her now-famous memoir about growing up as a black girl in racist America. And for the rest of her life, she remained dedicated to the work and the spirit of Martin Luther King.

00:16:53 MAYA ANGELOU: He cared about women. He cared about the poor. He cared about the Spanish-speaking. He cared about Jews. He cared about poor whites, the miners, and those who were having a very hard time. So that even as he was assassinated, he was planning a march on Washington called the Poor People's March, in which he had encouraged African Americans, white Americans, Spanish-speaking, Native Americans, Asian-Americans, all of us, to join and go to Washington and sit there in various tent cities in the nation's capital until something was done for the poor.

00:17:47 STUDENT: Do you think there will be any other great people like Martin Luther King in the near future — and who?

00:17:53 MAYA ANGELOU: Yes. Thank you, darling. Where are you from? Where are you calling from?

00:17:57 STUDENT: Gunston Elementary School in Lorton, Virginia.

00:18:00 MAYA ANGELOU: Okay. Thank you. Yes. I don't think that the world ended, as tragic as it was when Reverend King was assassinated. Young men and women are preparing themselves now for the burden and the glory of being great, and you can't say where the person will come from. She may be growing up in a condominium in Hilton Head, or he may be growing up in a log cabin in Charlotte, North Carolina, or in Virginia, where you are.

00:18:38 He may be Asian. He may be white. He may be black. She may be Native American. She may be Spanish-speaking. She may be blonde. She may be black-skinned. She'll be an American. That'll be hot, yes? She'll be an American, trying to live at the highest level. So don't become disheartened. Just create yourself. Have enough courage to invent yourself.

00:19:09 ALICE WINKLER: Just to remind you, this was Maya Angelou participating in an Academy of Achievement event for MLK Day in the mid-1990s. The election of the first African American president was still a good way in the future. The moderator that day asked Maya Angelou what she thought Dr. King would have to say about the state of the African American community, of the high rate of incarceration and black-on-black violence in the inner city.

00:19:36 MAYA ANGELOU: Let me say that not only would Dr. King be disappointed and hurt, but I would imagine so would Malcolm X, and so would W.E.B. Du Bois, and so would Marcus Garvey. Carter G. Woodson would be terribly disappointed, A. Philip Randolph and Adam Clayton Powell — the black men who tried to leave ideals that were palpable, that were tenable, that one could almost touch. These men would be terribly disappointed because they meant to leave ideals for young black men to emulate, to not imitate so much as to appreciate.

00:20:29 It's very hard, you see, for anybody to get beyond the propaganda which is dumped on his or her head. If a person — any human being — is told often enough, "You are nothing. You are nothing. You account for nothing. You count for nothing. You are less than a human being. I have no visibility of you. You are nothing" — if any person is told that often enough, the person finally begins to believe it.

00:21:05 And not only believe it but to say, "You think I'm nothing? I will show you where nothing is," and becomes even lower than he or she is accused of being. It is very, very hard for a young black man anywhere to sit in his home — in his home, in his place of living, in the street sometimes — and believe that this country cares about him. It is very hard.

00:21:40 So if the country doesn't care, if his peers are going down the hole, then he says, "Well, they look just like me. They're nothing. So that proves I'm nothing. In that case, their lives are worth nothing, and I can not only take their lives, I can allow them to take mine."

00:22:03 ALICE WINKLER: And people who are not treated with respect, who are not valued, she said in answer to another question from a student in the audience, cannot develop character.

00:22:13 MAYA ANGELOU: Oh, I know that is true. People will very often try to respond to you on the level on which you address them. So if you say, "Aren't you wonderful? Aren't you splendid? My goodness, you're beautiful. Oh, you're so bright" — people will try — even if they're not, they really will try to lift themselves up to that. On the other hand, if you say, "You know, you're a dog. You really are so low. You'll never be anybody. In fact, you're a nobody now and you never have been," sooner or later that person will respond on the level on which he or she is addressed.

00:22:51 He will say figuratively or literally, "Let me show you where ‘dog’ is. Let me show you where low really is. I will show you that." And this young woman, who's just spoken, has told one of the most basic truths. The ways in which we — the levels on which we approach young people, they will more often than not respond on those levels. Let me tell you a story about someone who is known by many of these young men and women.

00:23:26 Years ago, I did a movie called Poetic Justice, and there was a young man the first day who cursed so, I couldn’t believe it. I walked around behind him and tried to ignore him, but the second day he and another young man, black man, ran to each other, and they were about to fight, and hundreds of extras started to run away. But one black man walked up to the two young men, and I walked up, and I took one by his shoulder.

00:23:59 I said, "Let me speak to you." He said, "(GARBLED WORDS)." I said, "Let me speak to you, honey."

00:24:05 "Yeah, well, I'll tell you something. (GARBLED WORDS)." I said, "No, let me talk to you, please," and he finally calmed down. And I said, "Do you know how much you're needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? You? Please, baby. Take a minute. Don't lose your life on a zoom." I put my arm around him.

00:24:28 He started to weep. The tears came down. That was Tupac Shakur. I took him — I walked him down into a little gully and kept his back to the people so they wouldn't see him, and I used my hands to dry his cheeks, and I kept talking to him sweetly. Sweetly. For the next week, while I was on that film, whenever I walked by, he would be saying, "So I told these — " He would say, "Good morning, Miss Angelou."

00:25:00 You see? The young woman has hit upon something, probably the most profound that I have heard in this day, that people will respond, and you must start them young so that these young men and women — dears, try to introduce courtesy into your speech to each other. You have no idea what it will do for your brother or sister to whom you speak, and you surely have no idea what it will do for you.

00:25:34 It will lift you up. I know there are blacks who say, "I can use the N-word because I mean it endearingly." I don't believe that. I believe it is vulgar and dangerous given from any mouth to any ear. I know that if poison is in a vile which says P-O-I-S-O-N and has a skull and the crossbones, that it's poison, but if you pour the same thing into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison.

00:26:08 ALICE WINKLER: Maya Angelou told this story about Tupac Shakur, the legendary rapper, before he was killed in a drive-by shooting. His 1999 album, released after his death, featured a song inspired by Maya Angelou's poem “Still I Rise,” and in fact, that's the title of the album. It has plenty of the kind of language that Maya Angelou did not approve of, so I'll only play a bit that she would have.


I was born not to make it but I did

The tribulations of a ghetto kid, still I rise

Still I (still I) I rise (I rise)

Please give me to the sky (the sky)

And if (and if) I die (I die)

I don't want you to cry

I stay sharp as always

Running your bricks with blitz

Through your project hallways

00:26:55 ALICE WINKLER: Tupac Shakur was just one of the many rap, hip-hop, and R&B artists who befriended Maya Angelou or was influenced by the rhythm of her speech and the power of her words. Kanye West, Queen Latifah, The Roots, Nicki Minaj, Q-Tip, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, and many others likewise revered her as a wise elder. And whether they knew it or not, they were inheriting from her the courage, passion, and poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.

00:27:26 At each of these MLK Day events where Maya Angelou spoke, there was always a student who wanted to know whether his dream had come true. Here is how she answered.

00:27:37 MAYA ANGELOU: I don't know if we have really realized the dream yet. With the recent escalation of hate and violence and racism, I don't think it's fair to say that the dream has been realized. I think what we are obliged to do, rather, is continue to remember the dream and continue to tell the children, all our children, that this is what has been dreamed for them.

00:28:13 I think it is imperative that we take small black children and small white children and small Spanish-speaking children and small Asian children — take them into our laps, take them into our classrooms, take them into our homes, into the churches and synagogues and temples and mosques — and tell them that this is their country. It belongs to everyone equally. This is important.

00:28:46 Tell them that they have already been paid for. It is very important for them to know that so that they can feel, "Oh, the welfare of this country depends upon me thinking, and thinking deeply, and thinking correctly, and thinking fairly." We have to work at it. It's not something we can sit back and say, "Whew! It's coming round the mountain."

00:29:17 No, no. We have to go out and put our hands on it and build it, flesh it out, make it real. We have to do that. He dreamed the dream. It is up to us who are left here to make it come true.

00:29:37 The statement is: “In evil times, the only place for a moral person is on the ramparts, in jail, or in exile.” And so, certainly, when other human beings' rights are being denied, Dr. King — and I would add Malcolm X, and I would add Medgar Evers, and certainly some of the most activist — Fannie Lou Hamer and others — would be marching or whatever would be effective at this time. Marching might not be the thing.

00:30:17 There might be a necessity to devise a new and other way to deal with inequities in our society.

00:30:25 For you see, young men and women, the charge upon you is no small matter. It really is — no matter what field you’re interested in, no matter what discipline catches your fancy and your intelligence — the real problem, the real charge upon you is to make this country more than it is today, more than what James Baldwin called "these yet-to-be United States."

00:30:55 That is the charge. If you go through a microscope to find it, wonderful; a set of drums to find it, marvelous; a platform where you will be teaching at the university or in kindergarten, marvelous. Whatever you do, remember, since life is our most precious gift, and since — as far as we can be absolutely certain — it is given to us to live but once, let us so live we will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and blithering ignorance.

00:31:33 And in dying, each of us can say, "All my conscious life and energies have been dedicated to the most noble cause in the world, the liberation of the human mind and spirit, beginning with my own." Thank you.

00:31:59 ALICE WINKLER: Civil rights activist, poet, and writer Maya Angelou. She spoke about the legacy and lessons of her friend Martin Luther King Jr. for the Academy of Achievement in 1991, '94, and '97. Dr. Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86. And just a reminder, this is our second episode about Maya Angelou, so if you missed the first, please go take a listen. And spread the word: our Twitter handle is #WhatItTakesNow.

00:32:32 This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I'm Alice Winkler.

00:32:40 Funding for What It Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation. We thank them, and we thank you, as always, for listening.


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.