That was the question I was forced to answer when I found myself on the phone with world-renowned autobiographer Maya Angelou. After graciously agreeing to an exclusive interview with Landmark Report, the real challenge was figuring out what to ask her.
This was not the result of being starstruck, but rather the awareness that an open-ended discussion with a woman to whom every day of life is a journey challenges an interviewer in a way that a fluffy, entertainment interview never would.
Dr. Angelou has bared her soul and her secrets through six full-length autobiographies and dozens of essays, not to mention hundreds of lectures across the globe. She has made her life, quite literally, an open book.
Her most notable book was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography that chronicled the young woman’s journey through late adolescence to early adulthood in a revolutionary manner. As one of the first black women to speak candidly about her personal life in such a public manner and her relentless pursuit of civil rights, it’s no wonder that she’s been heralded by the New York Times as a kind of “uncrowned royalty” to blacks.
Beyond the sheer range of jobs Dr. Angelou has found herself in–from prostitute to poet, actress to activist–her endeavors have placed her in the company of historic individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., every American president since Jimmy Carter, and even the cast of The Muppet Show. She is unfazed by status though. To her, everyone from the pauper to the President has a story to tell and something to offer the world. That is, perhaps, why her inspiration can come from everything and everyone she encounters.
Whether marching for civil rights or championing her latest cause, a women’s health and wellness facility, Dr. Angelou has never stopped tackling what she sees as inequality in the world. And she doesn’t want to. It’s those fights that keep her going, and her constant quest for knowledge and inspiration that encourages her to encourage others.
On June 28th, North Carolina’s Forsyth Medical Center is slated to cut the ribbon to the Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness, a facility devoted to healthcare centered around the uniqueness of women and their mental and physical needs. To Dr. Angelou, when addressing funding towards men’s and women’s health causes, “The disparities are embarrassing.” That’s why she’s so passionate about this center. Through this and her work, she wants to encourage women to stand up for themselves, medically and otherwise.
Andrew Lawton: The Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness is opening later this month. Why is this issue important to you?
Maya Angelou: We all know that the playing field is not quite equal. There’s not enough money in research for women’s issues A lot of people really think that men are the most targeted with heart ailments. But the truth is that women die from heart attacks with more frequently and these are more than just heart attacks–they’re deaths. What we want to do is provide for women the kind of care that will allow us to research health and welfare and wellness in areas that females have problems, such as childbirth.
AL: This hospital is new, but I know your fight for women’s issues has gone on for decades. You’re always fighting for something. Do you get tired of needing to?
MA: Oh no! I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise. I’d have to take a running leap like a lemming and jump into the sea if we didn’t have anything to stand up for. I’m encouraging people to develop courage. In this case, with the Maya Angelou Wellness Center, I think we’re doing something rather new, and that’s to encourage women to stand up for themselves. To be advocates for themselves so that they’re active in preventing illness.
AL: Do you feel modern women have troubles with that?
MA: I think so. It’s not only women I’ve known, but I see it in newspapers too. Women are not used to defending themselves. In some cases, we leave all of that to someone else…the defense and protection. This center is not only to encourage physical and medical care, but also psychological care. So women can begin to think that they’re worthy of being well. Worthy of being strong. It’s imperative that they do so–that we do so–or we’re not going to become the mothers and sisters and daughters and nieces and aunts that we need to be. In this institution, we are very excited about the possibility of making a fundamental shift for women. They need to know that they’re worth of good health and good care. Then they can help themselves heal.
AL: Taking a step back to the broader scope of your career, you’ve been blessed with hundreds of accolades and awards from your work. Do you measure your success by those, or by smaller, more personal achievements?
MA: I see encouragement from change in the world. Though I do appreciate the big awards and plaques, I also appreciate a woman sending me a note saying, “Because of something you said, I feel I can protect myself.” I wrote some cards for Hallmark and they were all sorts of cards, but in particular, cards of encouragement. One said, “Women should not whine. Whine makes you ugly and does nothing to the object of your displeasure. Worst of all, it lets the brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood.”
AL: With all you’ve been through in your life, how have you kept from whining? How have you–since a very young age it would seem–rejected status as a victim?
MA: I had the great fortune of having a strong grandmother who told me I was going to be a teacher. At one point in my life, after I had been raped by my mother’s boyfriend, I told the name of the rapist to my family and the man was put in jail for one day and then released. A day or two later he was found dead. The police informed my mother’s family that the man had been found dead. He had been kicked to death. I thought that my voice had killed him. I was only seven. My logic told me that my voice had killed him, so I simply stopped speaking.
My grandmother–my father’s mother–took me back and raised me. She told me, “If you don’t talk, people’ll say you must be stupid. You must be a moron. Mama don’t care. Mama knows when you and the good Lord get ready, you gonna be a teacher. You gonna teach all over this world.” I used to sit and think, “This poor, ignorant woman. Doesn’t she know I will never speak?” And now, Mr. Lawton, I teach all over the world and I just think that that woman–my grandmother–was so wise.
AL: She knew you before you did.
MA: When I was growing up, children would only speak when spoken to and come when called. My grandmother’s neighbors and friends would say, “You know, Sister Anderson, I saw your little grandbaby and spoke to her. She didn’t even open her mouth.” My grandmother would say, “That’s alright. When she and the good Lord get ready, she’s gonna be a teacher.” She told me that at least once a week for 10 years. [Laughs]
AL: When did you start believing it?
MA: Well actually, I believed it within a year. I didn’t trust it, but I knew it to be true. She was everything to me. I really thought she was God and wouldn’t let anyone know it. She was just so controlled and spoke so softly. When she died, she was over 6 foot and she almost whispered. At one point I though, “She may be right. But I can’t do it yet.” She told me, “Sister, when you get, give. When you learn, teach. That will take you all over this world.”
I found her to be absolutely right. I’ve been traveling all over the world, speaking the languages, eating the food and laughing with the people. So far, I’m doing pretty much what she advised me to do.
AL: There’s an old quote often misattributed to Henry Ford that goes “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether they’re 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning is young.” Are you young or old?
MA: I’m still young!
AL: In seriousness though, a lot of your peers have been in retirement for over 20 years–
MA: Not just retiring, but dying.
AL: Where do you draw the energy from to keep on going?
MA: I spend time in the garden–that’s a good start. Listening to good music. Talking with somebody like you–young and full of excitement and questions All of that is good.
AL: Is it the people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama who inspire you more, or simply the ordinary people with stories to tell?
MA: Mr. Lawton, when it comes to human beings, all comparisons are odious. The unwed mother who may have two or three children and is white and poor and tells me I mean something to her and something I said has helped her stand erect is a mountain woman. Or the Asian man. All sorts of people. No one is below me and no one above me.
AL: Your inspiration comes from everywhere and everyone, then?
MA: Everywhere. I hear it in country music, in blues. I hear it in a child’s poem. There are a number of schools named for me around the country and around the world. When I see a small person in one of those schools get up and say “I love you Miss Angelou,” I want to take him and sit him in my lap and hug him up. I’m encouraged.
AL: On the note of country music, I hear that you’re not too happy about Brooks & Dunn splitting up.
MA: I am a big fan of theirs. Still am.
AL: I love country music for its authenticity. There’s a purity to country lyrics I find.
MA: All of those reasons, yes. It tells a human truth. There are a couple of fellows–real cowboys–named Montgomery Gentry who I love. I was speaking in Tennessee and they came to open for me at a university. [Laughs] They came and sang a magnificent song called “Some People Change.” About two weeks after I returned home, a huge box about 6 foot long came into my house as a delivery. I opened it–it was a giant guitar designed for them with their names on it. They sent it to me. I sent a note to them saying, “You can put one more accolade on your resume: You read minds. I wanted to open one of these and play it some day.” I’m sorry to say that arthritis has attached itself to me and that it’s unlikely I’ll play guitar, but I have a beautiful Montgomery Gentry guitar.
AL: So you won’t be doing any concerts anytime soon?
MA: [Laughs] Oh no! Well, I’ll do concerts if I’m speaking poetry, but not singing with a guitar.
AL: With all of the lectures and interviews you do around the globe, is there anything you wish people would ask you about more?
MA: Each time I do it, it’s new. It’s brand new. I knew you and I were going to talk about the health initiative, but I didn’t know what else. Look how far we’ve roamed. Each time I’m inspired. What I want to do is be present and authentic. When you ask me a question, I want to answer it as well as I understand it and tell the truth. I don’t have to tell everything I know, but I do want to make sure that what I say is the truth as I understand it.