Editor’s Note: In anticipation of Maya Angelou’s planned June 9 appearance in Omaha, Walter V. Brooks of the Omaha Star had the opportunity to interview the cultural icon. Angelou passed away May 28. This was one of her final interviews.
The words “icon” and “living legend” are thrown about America with such frequency now, they’re all but meaningless. But Dr. Maya Angelou, 86, represents a span of artistry that is 70 years and counting. She will be in Omaha, at the Orpheum Theater on Thursday, June 9 at 7 p.m.
On May 19, I spoke with Dr. Angelou for 10 minutes (time restrictions to preserve her energy and strength and due to the huge volume of requests). She was genuinely delighted to know that the Omaha Star is a black-owned newspaper, and after giving her a brief history of founder Mildred D. Brown and publisher Dr. Marguerita Washington, she told me that she would definitely look up Mrs. Brown to learn more about “such a courageous black woman.”
I was only able to ask three questions. But before I share that conversation, take a moment to reflect upon the extraordinary life of Maya Angelou. Taken from her official biography at website mayaangelou.com:
“Dr. Maya Angelou is one of the most renowned and influential voices of our time. Hailed as a global renaissance woman, Dr. Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist.
“Born on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Angelou was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. In Stamps, Dr. Angelou experienced the brutality of racial discrimination, but she also absorbed the unshakable faith and values of traditional African-American family, community, and culture.
“As a teenager, Dr. Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor. She later finished high school, giving birth to her son, Guy, a few weeks after graduation. As a young single mother, she supported her son by working as a waitress and cook, however her passion for music, dance, performance, and poetry would soon take center stage.
“In 1954 and 1955, Dr. Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. She studied modern dance with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey on television variety shows and, in 1957, recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, acted in the historic Off-Broadway production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks and wrote and performed Cabaret for Freedom.
“In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
“During her years abroad, Dr. Angelou read and studied voraciously, mastering French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity.
“Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after Malcolm X’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King’s assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated.
“With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published to international acclaim and enormous popular success. The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles.
“A trailblazer in film and television, Dr. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“She continues to appear on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley’s “Roots” (1977) and John Singleton’s Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante.
“Dr. Angelou has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and has received 3 Grammy Awards. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Dr. Angelou’s reading of her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” was broadcast live around the world. Dr. Angelou has received over 50 honorary degrees and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.”
Following is my recent interview with Angelou:
Today, May 19, is the birth date of Malcolm X. Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Would you offer a reflection on your memory of Malcolm X?
Malcolm X thought I made a good sister and I know he made a good brother. He was incredibly friendly and accessible. Anybody could talk to him. I don’t know what his greatest gifts were, but I remember that he was so far-seeing, and Malcolm X had courage. That makes me think of Mrs. Mildred Brown and Dr. Marguerita Washington because courage is what African Americans have had to come out of slavery at all and courage to try to live decent lives, marry and raise children, build churches and schools and keep their schools alive. Malcolm X had the courage to look for truth and to say what he was looking for. And when he found that what he had found was NOT the truth, he had the courage to say, “Say, everybody, remember what I said last week, well I do not believe that anymore. I’ve learned something new, I’ve learned some more truth.” When Malcolm came to Ghana for a visit, he told us that “I used to say that all white people were blue-eyed devils, but now I don’t believe that anymore. I’ve been in Mecca and met people with skin as white as anybody’s and hair yellow as gold, who I was not ashamed to call “brother.” Because they believed not only in good for all people, but they believed in good for ME. That showed what courage he had. And I also must mention what a great sense of humor he had. He was able to laugh. I am sorry to say that few people ever mention Malcolm X’s sense of humor, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s sense of humor. They were both wonderful, they laughed, they were human beings. They were NOT larger than life. And that’s why I think young men and young women can strive to be like both of these men. Because they were both just human beings who grew into greatness.
You came of age as an artist during the hay-day of some of America’s great African-American artist vehicles, the Harlem Writer’s Guild, Alvin Ailey Dancers, the National Negro Ensemble, and of course your artistic journey through Africa. What are contemporary African American artists missing by not having those great cultural incubators of talent?
You can only know where you are going if you know where you’ve came from. Picture it realistically. If you parked your car some place and you didn’t know where you parked it, then left your office or building to go, you’d be in terrible shape because you didn’t know where your car was. The truth is, you need to know your own His-story and Her-story to balance your life journey.
Omaha, Nebraska has an cultural treasure in the Aframerican Bookstore. When the Aframerican Bookstore opened 27 years ago, there were almost 400 black-owned bookstores in the United States. Today there are less than 140. What are the consequences of this development to future black writers and do you have any suggestions on how to turn this around?
The young men and women who have enough money to start a new business, should look into starting new bookstores, and include records, DVD’s and CD’s. We need to have our feet firmly planted in the world of literacy. Our children need to have us read to them from black books (as well as books about Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, all books). One of the things that has happened is that the large book stores have started selling African American books. I think that some investors believe that unless they can compete with the larger book stores and chains, they can’t make a living. But I do not think you have to start off at the top. I think it is sometimes dangerous to start off at the top. I think you can start off at the bottom and still come up. If you can convince yourself that black book stores are still vital and can thrive, you may be able to convince someone else.