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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,
Coretta Scott King,
John R. Lewis,
W.S. Merwin,
N. Scott Momaday,
Jessye Norman,
Rosa Parks,
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Amy Tan,
Elie Wiesel and
Oprah Winfrey

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: 6 / 9)

Poet and Historian

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  Maya Angelou

We've been going through some difficult times for young people of color. We read that there are as many young African American men in jail as there are in college. The violence, particularly black-on-black violence, has been at extreme and very dangerous levels for kids growing up in some neighborhoods. Don't you think Dr. King would be disappointed?

Maya Angelou: Not only would Dr. King be disappointed and hurt, but so would Malcolm X, and so would W.E.B. DuBois, and so would Marcus Garvey. Carter G. Woodson would be terribly disappointed, and so would A. Philip Randolph and Adam Clayton Powell. These men would be terribly disappointed, because they meant to leave ideals for young black men to emulate. Not to imitate, so much as to appreciate. It's very hard 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, and not only believe it, 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. 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."

There have been articles in The New York Times where kids 15 and 16 recite lists of their friends who are now deceased. What do you do to stop that violence?

Maya Angelou: If I knew that, I would be on TV with Bryant Gumbel in the morning and with Oprah Winfrey tomorrow afternoon. I would stand out on the street corners and shout it, if I knew. All I do know is that the responsibility is ours. It is ours. We have to stop holding back and saying, "These are not my children." We must stop it. I do what I do, but that is hardly a drop of water in the sea. If all of us did everything we could do, we could save our nation, we could save our children.

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 are so bright!" people will try, even if they are not, they really will try to lift themselves up to that. On the other hand, if you say, "You are a dog. You really are so low you will never be anybody. In fact, you are nobody now and you never have been," sooner or later, that person will respond on the level on which he or she is addressed. He will say, figuratively or literally, "Let me show you where a dog is. Let me show you where low really is. I will show you that."

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 young men and women.

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, 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. I took one by his shoulder, I said, "Let me speak to you." He said, "If these blah-blah..." I said, "Let me speak to you, honey." "Well, I tell you something, blah-blah..." I said, "No, let me talk to you, please." And he finally calmed down and I said, "Do you know how much you are needed? Do you know what you mean to us? Do you know that hundreds of years of struggle have been for you? Please baby, take a minute. Don't lose your life on a zoom." I put my arm around him. 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. 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, Ms. Angelou."

Maya Angelou Interview Photo
People will respond, and you must start them young. 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. It will lift you up.

A lot of young people these days have access to weapons, have access to handguns. Something like 40 percent of all kids in a recent poll knew where they could get a gun if they wanted one. What do you think about that?

Maya Angelou: Well, my feeling for teenagers -- and adults, too -- is that we should get rid of the handguns. We should leave ourselves a chance to survive. It's so easy to see the violence on television and in the movies, and hear it almost extolled. Here's The Terminator: "I can terminate your life. I can end your life." And then, to think that they have within their grasp a Saturday night special, or whatever they're called. Or one of the big magnums. They have within their grasp that weapon. And somebody says, "I don't like you," and it comes to this 14- or 15-year-old's mind, "I can terminate you. Boom!" No, children. No, darlings. Your lives are too valuable. You can't believe it right now. This is the tragedy. You know, it is said that the young people have become cynical. Darlings, let me tell you something.

One of the saddest things in the world is to see a cynical young person. Because it means that he and she have gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. It is so sad. We need you so desperately. Not enough adults have told you, "You are all we have. Everything we've done, negative and positive, has been for you. You are all there is for us." And not enough adults tell you that. But we should tell you that every morning. While you're brushing your teeth, while you're pulling on your jeans, while you're having your breakfast, while you're on the bus, on the streetcar, on the subway. Some adult should be telling you, "Darling, you're the best we've got, and we need you."

Sometimes, young people complain about a kind of negative peer pressure, that their peers try to pull them down. Do you think when young people resist that, they can have a positive influence on their peers?

Maya Angelou: It is true that one can use the positive element, as opposed to the negative; the glass half full, as opposed to the glass half empty. The only thing is, I am sorry to say, ignorance is contagious. I could only wish that intelligence was as contagious, but you have to work quite hard to keep yourself in a positive mode, so that you can influence someone else. But when you help someone else, you are amazed at how much you help yourself.

I notice on airplanes -- I have almost two million miles on Delta, so you know I am always in the air. I notice that if a person is very nervous and gets frightened when there is turbulence, it is the moment that happens, even though I am frightened, if I move over to the person and say, "Let me help you. Listen, all is well, I have been through this many times," that person will hold on to my arm or my hand and suddenly, I am freed and I am rid of fear. So it is something quite marvelous to help somebody else. You have no idea how much you help yourself.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

People will respond on the level on which you address them. If a young man or young woman is getting that fortification, that back-up, that support -- "Yes, baby, you are wonderful. Mama is so proud of you. Grandma is so proud of you. Big mama loves you. Big papa loves you." All that, that continues at the church. I haven't mentioned the church, but if you have the possibility of going to a church and working in the church, you will find yourselves increased. That is, if you are going to a Baptist church, Methodist church, into a synagogue, into a mosque, try to find yourself some place where there are some other young people who are thinking positively. Go to the Catholic church if that is your inheritance and that is what interests you. Find somebody so that some teacher at the church will say, "You know, I am so proud of him. He used to come in here, he just looked like I don't know what. Now he comes in here, he looks so good, look at him. Look at that fine boy." And you will try to lift to that. So I encourage you, try to find a church home. I don't say join, that is up to you and your God. But try to find a church home so you can get some more corroboration, some more fortification.

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