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If you like Maya Angelou's story, you might also like:
Benjamin Carson,
Rita Dove,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Lauryn Hill,
Naomi Judd,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Maya Angelou in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Martin Luther King Day

Maya Angelou also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. I

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Vol. II

Related Links:
Maya Angelou - Official Website

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Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou
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Maya Angelou Interview (page: 4 / 9)

Poet and Historian

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  Maya Angelou

Have you ever been in a position to defend someone else who was being discriminated against?

Maya Angelou: Oh yes, many times. I raised a black boy. I've defended myself first, and I raised a black boy. I have black children, and I have gay friends, and gay children. I have defended whites.

I will not sit in a group of black friends and hear racial pejoratives against whites. I will not hear "honky." I will not hear "Jap." I will not hear "kike." I will not hear "greaser." I will not hear "dago." I will not hear it. As soon as I hear it, I say, "Excuse me, I have to leave. Sorry." Or if it's in my home, I say, "You have to leave. I can't have that. That is poison, and I know it is poison, and you're smearing it on me. I will not have it." Now, it's not an easy thing. And one doesn't all of a sudden sort of blossom into somebody who's courageous enough to say that. But you do start little by little. And you sit in a room, and somebody says -- if you're all white, and somebody says, "Well, the niggers -- " You may not have the courage right then, but you say, "Whooh! My goodness! It's already eight o'clock. I have to go," and leave. Little by little, you develop courage. You sit in a room, and somebody says, "Well, you know what the Japs did then, and what they're doing now." Say, "Mm-hmm! I have to go. My goodness! It's already six o'clock." Leave. Continue to build the courage. Sooner or later, you'll be able to say out loud, "Just a minute. I defend that person. I will not have gay bashing, lesbian bashing. Not in my company. I will not do it."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Once you find that voice for yourself to speak up, it gets easier each time, rather than more difficult.

Maya Angelou: It's true, and sweeter. People start identifying you. Somebody starts to say something and someone else will nudge them and say, "Don't say that. She's sitting over there."

When we talk about racism, we have to see that we are not just talking about acts against blacks, we are talking about vulgarities against any human being because of her -- his -- race. This is vulgar. That is what it is, whether it is anti-Asian, whether it is the use of racial pejoratives about Jews, about Japanese, about Native Americans, about blacks, about Irish, it is stupid, because what it is really is it is poison. It poisons the spirit, the human spirit. 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 vial which says P-O-I-S-O-N and has a skull and the cross bones, that it is poison. But if you pour the same thing into Bavarian crystal it is still poison. So I think racism is vulgar any way you cut it.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So many people start out in life with prejudices they may have learned from their parents or friends. What do you say for instance to a young man -- a white man or woman -- who makes friends with African Americans at school but has parents who are uncomfortable with this, or don't approve for some reason?

Maya Angelou: There is a line in Hamlet in which Hamlet's step-father, who is really his uncle, is being berated by Hamlet. And the king says to Hamlet, "You must remember, every father had a father." Now what that really means is, your parents are repeating what their parents told them. And their parents told them what had been told to them. Obviously, young man, you are breaking the mold. Thank God for that. So that when you have children, you will not tell the children what was told to you. This is the hope we have. This is why young people are the best we have, and all we have. We have prayers, and need, and just terrible yearning that you young people will be able to break the mold.

What do you think of Malcolm X's statements from the period of his life when he did believe in at least an armed struggle, if not a violent one, to further the cause of civil rights in this country?

Maya Angelou: That was a part of his growth. He was a friend and brother to me. And I've written about his last days when we were together.

We are all in process. And that's what I mean, again, about intelligence and its value. We have all believed the most outrageous things at different times in our lives. And as the position became untenable, as we saw through that position we were holding -- Here is where courage comes in: To be able to say, "Say everybody, you know what I said yesterday, and said so fervently, and said with such passion? Well I don't believe that any more. I have been changed." Now that is courage. So that is, you have the courage -- the insight to see, and the courage to say. That was Martin. That was Malcolm. That was it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

But it's true that Malcolm X at times called whites "blue-eyed devils," and espoused violence as a means to meet an end.

Maya Angelou: There was a time when Malcolm espoused the belief that all whites were "blue-eyed devils." But he took his life in his own hands when he said, publicly, that he had been to Mecca, and there he saw blonde, blue-eyed men whom he could call brothers. He said, "So everybody, what I said was wrong." Now, that took an incredible amount of courage to say that, because after he said it, he didn't live very long. He was killed after he said that. But he did see it, and he said it. And that has to be -- I mean, one has to salute him.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

In your opinion, what were the differences and similarities between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King?

Maya Angelou: 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. 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, but essentially, at heart they were very much alike. They wanted the best for their people. 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 towards 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. He said that he was coming back to the United States to say that he didn't -- 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.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a lot of religious leaders who marched with him. Is that a difference between those times and these? Do you believe we have the type of religious leaders that we need today?

Maya Angelou Interview Photo
Maya Angelou: It is of particular interest to see the men who have been important in our struggle; that is, when one looks at Dr. King, a preacher; and Andrew Young, a preacher; and Jesse Jackson, a preacher; and Malcolm X, a preacher; or Louis Farrakhan, a preacher, to see that as a people we tend to be religious, whether we are following Buddha, or in some cases are black Jews or Muslims or Christians or Shintoists for that matter. Martin Luther King, Jr. always said human beings are more alike than we are unalike.

You mentioned Louis Farrakhan. He has been a very strong advocate of individual responsibility, but he has been a very controversial figure as well. How do you interpret his role?

Maya Angelou: Mr. Farrakhan has offended a lot of people. I understand that. But I am not his apologist, nor the person to interpret him. I think he is very good at interpreting himself. I think that we talk about being Americans and we take it awfully lightly. We forget because probably none of us has lived in another country where, if you said something that the government didn't agree with, you could be shot at dawn. We take being American for granted. Since Louis Farrakhan is an American, he has the right to say what he thinks to be true. What I would encourage young men and women to do is find that speaker who really speaks to your heart. Try to find two or three who speak to your needs and whose melody you can hum, and listen to that speaker. I do believe that people are controversial as long as their statements shake and maybe question the status quo. Martin Luther King, Jr. was controversial, you must know that. And certainly Malcolm X remained, until he died, a controversial figure. Nobody is going to be all things to all people. You must know that going in.

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This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 16:27 EDT
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