Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Ann Johnson; poet, memorialist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist.
Kabir Suman, singer-songwriter, musician, poet, journalist, political activist, TV presenter, occasional actor and Member of Parliament, India.
Kabir Suman. In your autobiographical work, The Heart of a Woman, you wrote: ‘Being a black American is qualitatively different from being an American.’ Would you please elaborate a little on this and tell me if that statement would be valid today?
Maya Angelou. Absolutely. That’s a recent book. The Heart of a Woman is only a part of a series of autobiographies. I believe myself to be the only serious writer in the United States who has chosen to use that medium as a vehicle for the expression of my work. That book was written only about three years ago. There is still, and there always has been a qualitative difference between being an American and being a black American. Let’s look at the differences: all white Americans arriving on this soil, before America was the United States or after, for the most part came here willingly. Only a very small percentage of white Americans, that is Europeans came here under bondage. And that bondage was a different bondage. In truth, less than two percent of the colonialists came here as bondsmen and bondswomen. For the most part, Europeans (English or Anglo-Saxon or whatever) came here willingly, escaping conditions which they found untenable. No African paid his or her way on a slave ship, paid passage—other than in blood and tears and sweat and agony and fear. That quantitatively makes the difference in the spirit and the intent between the two peoples. If everything had worked out back in 1650 so that there were no slaves and no bondsmen, even that would already make a difference. But 1650 was one of the peak years, because slaving had not by that time so crystallized, it was not ‘big business’ at that time. It only became big business by the end of the seventeenth century. Early in the eighteenth. The majority of the Africans brought to this country were brought from the period until 1850. These people, my ancestors, were brought and they lived under a condition called ‘Chattel slavery.’ That made quite different psychological complexions—first for the slave and for the slave-holder, and for the white who didn’t hold slaves. We bring the baggage of our inheritance, whether we like it or not, with us—the intangible and invisible baggage with us. And it weighs upon us to varying degrees, but it does weigh, and it makes for a different carriage, a different physical carriage between us. If one person has no baggage and another is carrying a hundred pounds, it weighs upon that ‘another’ person. That makes for the different stance, if you will. And my suggestion is that the psychological stances are different, depending upon the varying baggage.
K.S. I am going to borrow your statement I quoted before. Is ‘being a black American’ writer qualitatively different from ‘being an American’ writer too?
Angelou. Yes. I would say so. The pressure on me, Maya and me, the collective black, is such that I cannot write esoterically. My pen owes its every movement to the struggle. I know it sounds terribly romantic and all that, but I don’t mean it to be. I am who I am because of who I am. I am all those people who have been oppressed, who have been enslaved and murdered, and who have been discriminated against. And so, that’s who I am. So, when I write, I am obliged to write because of who I am. And that means then that I am obliged to talk about it. So, the white writer sometimes feels he or she can talk about the clouds, the sky, the waving of the first green, and I write about that too. But when I am really on my job—black Americans say ‘when I am on my J’—I have to get to my axe. My axe is always hewing on the same stone, and that is: how can we make this country more than what it is today?
K.S. Considering your views about the differences between the American and the Black American, would it be justified to suggest that there is an America and an Black America?
Angelou. Yes, of course. Some years ago I was on a plane and I picked up a Time or Newsweek magazine, and there I found this quote: “I don’t know why people think this is one country. There are at least, forty Americas, or more. The people of Kansas are convinced that they are America, they are the real America. Go in Texas. People in Texas know that they are America. And then if you go to New York and they know that after New York, you leave New York and you ain’t going nowhere. So, that’s where it is. That’s America. There certainly is a black America. There are many black Americas for that matter. People who are convinced, who stand tall in their conviction that they are black America. Some are radicals, some conservatives, some are religious, some are very young, some are very old—these are all black people who are certain that they represent Black America. So, certainly, it si safe to say, at least, there is a White America and a Black America. And there are, at least, fifty White Americas.
K.S. If you say there is an America and a Black America, that would be one thing. But if you say there is a White America and a Black America, don’t you think it would be another?
Angelou. I see what you are saying. Well, the Black America is different from America. It is not our wish. Our current president [Ronald Reagan] for whom black Americans did not vote in herds, in millions, is still our president. Whether the people vote for him or not, the moment he comes in and takes office, he is everyone’s president. Whether he operates with responsibility or not, he is the president, and he is supposed to look after the well-being of all the people.
Now, unfortunately it does not pan out like that in this case. The ideal, the original American dream, which was flawed, unfortunately, in the minds of the dreamers from the initiation, by the introduction of abundance of this vast land and rich soil—poor and harassed people who came to this country, metamorphosed by greed, began to subjugate and kill the Indians, which tells you that the ‘dream’ was flawed from the very beginning; but the ideal, the concept that here is a place for all the people all the time. Margaret Walters says: ‘Place for all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations’—that’s the ideal. There has been a few times over history when that has been worked toward, briefly and only by a few people. It’s unfortunate. But the schisms remain. The rifts between us continue to grow. The polarization is crystallizing more and more.
K.S. Do you mean to say it’s getting worse?
Angelou. Yes, I would say so.
K.S. The black Americans have fought, and still have o fight for their social and political rights in this country. And this struggle has also found expression in music, literature, theatre. What do you, as a black American writer, think of the role of cultural workers?
Angelou. I am always afraid of separating the cultural segment of the society from other workers in the society. I think that’s a dangerous thing. I think by doing so we set ourselves up as a kind of elite, and others as a kind of non-elite. The farmer and the industrial workers and the domestic worker and the school teacher and the painter—they can’t be separated. Because there is one struggle. If the artist as such, if the writer and sculptor and painter, or dancer thinks he or she is free rather than the industrial worker and the farmer and the domestic worker and the school teacher, well, he or she would make big mistake. That’s a division that’s dangerous to introduce. I will not be part of that. The role of artist is to serve—no more or no less than the role of a school teacher. It seems to me, we are to serve for the betterment of our society. And we have all been equally exploited, equally debased. May be I can articulate it more than the guy who drives the truck.
K.S. Do you really think that we, Maya Angelou, the famous writer, stands on the same level as the black worker in a factory?
Angelou. I am absolutely on the same level. Mind you, I can afford to have certain things, but I am not excited by those things. I don’t identify myself by those things. I work very, very hard in a system which believes that money dictates and explains the value of a person. I know where I am. But I also know that a telephone call can inform me that all the things I have, are of no value, have burned down, have been taken. I can be informed by one telephone call that my name is being taken off the door; that my office no longer belongs to me. I can go out of fashion as a writer. I understand that—by the manipulation of a larger society—I understand that. So I keep my roots in a black church. Wherever I am, I am a part of that black community. And I serve them and I ask them to serve me. I never make any distinction. I work hard, I would love to live pretty, and I will do so as long as I can afford to do so. Malcolm [Malcolm X] had a wonderful story, you know, in a lecture he gave at Yale. He asked: What is the difference between this black man who has these degrees and this black man who has a janitor? And he said: one is a doctor nigger and other is just nigger. That’s it. You know, there is no qualitative difference. I understand that. I have no romance, no sentimentality about it.
K.S. You mean the white society doesn’t make any essential distinction?
Angelou. Oh, the white society makes not an essential one, but a superficial one. The first thing the white society decides is: ‘You are different’—me—I am different. Thereby the white society says that my achievements, or particular kind of ruthlessness that I have, makes me white. They think that they can elevate me to them. That does not mean that they have come down to meet me. I understand that. So, what they see is superficial. The kind of distinction they give me is a superficial one. But if all the things they admire we were stripped away tonight, I would just be a nigger.
K.S. Maya, you have been a singer and you have acted too. Now, what I am confused about is whether you first took to writing or singing.
Angelou. No, I wrote first. I have always loved the sound of words. For a while in my life I was a mute, so I wrote a lot. I sang for a living. The only thing I ever loved to do is to dance, and to write.
K.S. But you don’t sing anymore?
Angelou. Oh, I am going to sing to you tonight! (Laughter) I do sing in the church, all the time.
K.S. But you don’t sing as professional singer these days, do you?
Angelou. No, I never really enjoyed standing up in front of people and singing. I never had the possibility of becoming a great singer. I could sing! But I didn’t love it. In order tio be great at something you have to love it. I have the possibility of becoming a great writer. I have that possibility because I love it.
K.S. What are your main concerns as a writer, and what do you think is the political and social relevance of your work?
Angelou: My main concern as a person is the content of my thought. My main concerns as a writer are the skill and eloquence of my art. So, as a person and as a writer my concerns are to say, to speak the truth as I deduce it, and speak it so well that the reader is twenty or thirty pages into the book of mine before he knows he is reading. That is very important to me. I am a writer. So, it is very important that I have polished my craft exquisitely. I want a sentence to jump off the page singing…singing…to look so easy that the reader gobbles it down. I want that sentence to carry with it an intent and a content. So, those are my concerns. And my work seems to be a part of a changing world.
Most of the people who have written to me after reading my books are white Americans. I would say sixty percent, or seventy percent. These people have been somewhat changed by my work. Somewhat. But that too is important. I n building a pyramid every grain of sand is important. So my books are, may be, some grains of sand. But I think they are important, or I wouldn’t work so hard. That’s the social and political relevance of y work. I speak through the black experience that I know. I am always talking about the human condition, what it is like to be a human being, what makes us strong or weak, stir around, what makes us have the courage to fall in love, and have the incredible courage to take responsibility, for the bad as well as the good. This is what my books talk about. And sometimes people are inspired. So I think my work is socially relevant.
K.S. In your autobiographical work, The Heart of a Woman, you have mentioned that you worked with Martin Luther King—that was political and social work—and then you were among the leading figures who organized a protest at the United Nations after [Patrice] Lumumba’s assassination, that was a political act too. But then you have not written much in that book about your political concerns and actions. I would like to know whether the following years have seen any continuation and evolution of your political engagements.
Angelou. (Reflects for a while). I have found that I am getting older. In the Judaic Bible it’s stated: ‘There is a time for all things, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, a time to reap.’ There is a time when one stand son a soap box, an important time, and if you happen to be lucky to be caught in that time, and also lucky enough to have the courage to get upon that soap box and do it to the best of your ability—that’s fine. That ebb and flow, or those ebbs and flows change, and change qualitatively with age, and with the changing time. The person who stands on the soap box today in this time would look as bizarre as some of the people who speak in Hyde Park corner in London.
K.S. Why do you think so?
Angelou. Because the time has changed. This is the time for something else, for another kind of movement. And it is a time for younger people who will initiate that movement. As I suggest, this is a time for me, as an older person, to support the young leader, to advise if he or she wants it, to support with one’s words, with money, one’s body. One of the dangers in political struggle—it seems to me from looking over the years—is that older people try to lead young people. I remember myself, as a young woman, as an activist, that so many times the people I would turn to for support or advice were older people, twenty years older than I, and they, figuratively, dumped buckets of ice water on me. I was trying to do something, to say something. And instead of saying, ‘You do it, honey, and I will follow. You do it and I will support, You do it and I will fix a safe house where you can come to’—in many cases they didn’t do it. There were a few, though, who said. ‘You can come to us, we will spirit you out.’ But the majority of the older people—because they thought they knew the struggle better than I did—would dump ice water on us. I think that I have reached a place where it’s not for me to take any initiative. I don’t see that far any more. My eyesight is weak. And I would be ridiculous. But I can be of help, in support, in money and in my words. That is the role for me. And I am not giving up anything. Rather, I am taking on something. Once you reach fifty you seem to know so much, that knowledge blocks the thrust.
K.S. Do you mean to say that political activism is meant only for young people?
Angelou. Yes, I mean the true activism, literally ‘activism’. I am active politically. But as I once would have marched far—five miles, march all day long, carrying banners and shouting all the way—physically cannot do that anymore. Just physically. I can’t. There are other things that I cannot do any more. I have to admit that. I have done it. I am satisfied that I have done it. I don’t have any envy of the young leader. My heart laughs with joy, you know that someone is coming along. I know that in one way it sounds like giving up. But it is something greater and much greater than that.
K.S. You mother once told you and you wrote about it in your book: ‘The blacks can’t manage change because the white whites won’t change.’ How much have the American blacks and whites changed since the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s?
Angelou. Incredibly! My mother was her generation. And she was talking to me not to encourage me; I don’t want to do that to anyone. She didn’t want to see her daughter hurt. She didn’t really agree for me to be with Martin Luther King. But when I came back and said that I was going to be with Malcolm X, she said: ‘But no, if you are going to do it at all, stay with Martin, Reverend King.’ That’s her role. That’s real, like grass growing, or a cow walking. I understand it. I couldn’t follow it, but I didn’t condemn her for her position. If my nephew or niece or my son sees something other than what I see, what I pray for myself is that I should be able to say: Do it. I’ll be there. If you need me, I’ll be here. You see better than I do. So, that is my role. In the natural order of life, you and your age group will come to it, and if you have grace and luck, you would turn to a younger person, not if you are so damned decrepit that you can’t turn—but when you are still active you will turn and say: here , here is the baton, you run the next one. You do it.
You asked me if there have been changes among the American blacks and whites. Yes, there have been changes. And I think that older people who were active in the movement in the 60s should admit it, it’s imperative that they admit that there have been changes, or we take away the hope from young people that change is possible.
25 years ago it would have been impossible for me to be living in Winston-Salem, and at a university. It would have been impossible for black people to come here by plane as John Killens and Grace Killens did today. It would have been impossible for them to use the toilets in a restaurant. You remember we were talking with John Killens this evening, about two of the great artists of our country, both blacks, who have plays on Broadway. That would have been impossible thirty years ago. They are producing a series of plays by black American writers for television. Ossis Davis and Ruby Dee: these are the two great artists we are talking about. What they are doing today in the television would have been impossible thirty years ago. Then there is a company—‘Reynolds’, Reynolds tobacco and so forth. One of the vice-presidents, who lives in the town, is named Bass. He is a black man. That would have been utterly impossible thirty years ago. Mr Bass works to employ black executives—impossible thirty years ago.
I am just talking about my own little area, among the people I associate with here in the town, there is a black man who is the Head of the Art Department of a local university. His wife is the Head of the Department of Minority Studies at a medical college. There is a black woman who is the Chairperson of the Department of Computer Science. I am just thinking of my immediate friends. In California my son is the personal analyst for the entire county. Now, all these things without the struggle could never have happened. And that’s only a part of the whole thing.
So, things change. The French say: the more things change, the more they remain the same. Racism is with us. We have it with us just as we had it long ago. That means the struggle continues unabated. But there are improvements. People vote. In the last election people have voted from families who have never voted in their lives! Because their mothers did not have the right to vote, their fathers did not have the law, which could support their eligibility to vote. And they have been here for three hundred years. When you look at Jesse Jackson you must say that things have changed. One has to look at Washington DC, Detroit, Chicago—major cities—cities that have black mayors. That could not have happened thirty years ago! But the struggle for those mayors to get money, to keep the cities safe, to get jobs, in no plaything. It’s like back in slavery! Still there is improvement. And what the improvement does is set up in high relief the need to keep struggling.
K.S. Maya, in your poem America, you wrote at the end, ‘I beg you/Discover this country’. How should someone like me, coming from afar, discover this country? What would you propose?
Angelou. For a non-American I would suggest that a visitor should first consider that the US heads the world in propaganda machineries of any sort. It is the American film that sets the tone of what to wear and how to act and even how to make love! People, you know, romance each other according to film scripts sometimes written by people who are so intoxicated by their jobs in their great Hollywood, they haven’t made love in forty years! The visitor must understand that a large portion of the industry of America is based on propaganda.
So, you should come, I won’t say cynical, but certainly with trepidation—not to believe everything one has seen, or heard or read, and really try to be very simple, and go among the people. Go among the people, go among the poor whites and the blacks, go to the native Americans. Nobody is going to eat your head off, if you come with your heart pure! Americans love to talk. Every American! White, black, fat, short, thin, tall—they all love to talk. So, if a stranger comes and really wants to know another country, this other country, he or she, according to his or her lack of timidity, according to one’s bravery and curiosity, would find countries that even Americans know nothing about. But don’t come prepared only by the USIA [United States Information Agency], or prepared only by the movies, Time or Life or Newsweek! Try to come clean.
K.S. Maya, tell me about your work in progress. What are you doing now?
Angelou. Oh! Oh! ( Laughs and growls) I have a new movie and anew book.
K.S. How many movies have you made till now?
Angelou: About five, I guess. Features for television and movie houses. I am working on a new play. And, this year I am going to direct, a play too. And then I am supposed to make a mini-series for the television. As regards writing, well, I am still working on a book. This is going to be the fifth in my autobiographical series.
K.S. You told me in this interview that your main concerns as a writer is to be skillful. How long do you work every day?
Angelou. For writing I always keep a room in a hotel. I leave home by six and I work all day.
K.S. You don’t work at home?
Angelou. No. I find I can’t. There I something that would take my mind off—a painting, or the way the sunlight falls against the chair, you know (laughs), and then I would think, ‘Hmm, a cup of coffee would be lovely!’ So I make a fresh pot of coffee, and I sit there, I dream, and I am gone. My concentration is gone! So I keep a room in a hotel for months.
K.S. Why does it have to be a hotel room? Why can’t it be any other room, a room somewhere?
Angelou. No. It has to be impersonal. It should not belong to me. Once I take a room in a hotel, I keep it for months. But I insist that there shouldn’t be anything on the walls. Nothing. The maid or whoever can only come in once a week, and then only to take the ashtrays. I never sleep on the bed.
K.S. What do you mean? Where do you sleep?
Angelou. Back at home. I come back home every night. Well, my hotel room has no telephone. I take in my Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a deck of cards, a bottle of sherry.
K.S. What are cards for?
Angelou. I play cards! I play as I write. It’s queer, I know, but…
K.S. What else do you take?
Angelou. Cigarettes and ashtray. No typewriter. I write on pads. Yellow pads. Just me and the yellow pad. A book usually takes about a year and a half.
K.S. Along with Alice Walker you are probably the best known black American woman writer now. How does it feel to be what you are in white dominated society and a society where women don’t have equal rights in every respect?
Angelou. (Reflects for a while). I don’t really know how to answer that. I know only one thing—my work remains to be done. If the whole world turned to me and said, ‘You are the greatest writer we have ever known,’ I would say, ‘How very kind! But my work remains to be done!’ After that leave it’s going to be me and my yellow page! And the pen! No praise will get my work done. I know that all these people who come to praise me will leave. And I know that the morning will come, and there will be all those pages! There is another thing. If you take the praise, you got to take the brickbats too. I don’t need either. I just want to work on. Because sooner or later that yellow pad will be there, and it gets longer, you know!
Note: The interview is collated in Discovering the Other America, Radical Voices from the 1980s (in conversation with Kabir Suman)