Maya Angelou is one of the great voices of contemporary literature and a remarkable Renaissance woman. In the 1960s, at the request of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Her books include an autobiographical account of her youth, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Gather Together in My Name. She has been awarded over 30 honorary doctorate degrees and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. These are not the accomplishments one might have predicted from knowing her in her early days.
Linda Wolf: Dr. Angelou, you have done a lot in your life. You’ve taken drugs and written about it. You were a madam for lesbian prostitutes. You were a teenage mom. You tried prostitution. You had incredible experiences, deep and rich, that you wouldn’t have had if you had followed the straight and narrow?
Maya Angelou: Yes, but I wouldn’t suggest it for anybody. I mean if you happen to fall into the gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter: get up and go to a safe place. Get up and go to someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized, and your body misused and abused. Get up! But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it.
I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, "I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? Never I! I have no skeletons in my closet! In fact I have no closet!" They lie like that, and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, "Damn, I must be a pretty bad guy. You know, my mom or dad never did anything wrong, so I’m pretty bad," and they can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.
So, I wrote Gather Together in My Name, meaning that all those grown people, all those parents and grandparents, and teachers and preachers, and rabbis and priests who lie to the children can gather together in my name, and I will tell them the truth.
Linda Wolf: Where did you find the inner strength to keep liking yourself and feeling good about yourself through all the hardships, the scary times, and the painful times?
Maya Angelou: Well, I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. Only the angels, the cherubim, and about three rocks don’t make mistakes. You’re going to do that.
But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, "I’m sorry," to the people who you think you may have injured, and then you say to yourself, "I’m sorry," and then you can like yourself again.
Quite often if we hold onto the mistake we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror, so we can’t see what we’re capable of being. It is equally important to see the mistake and to forgive oneself for it. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.
I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now when a larger society sees you as unattractive, as a threat, as too black or too white, or too poor, or too fat, or too sexual, or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.
So, I think my blessing has been that I have been able to see a lot of my mistakes, and I’ve been able to forgive a lot of them and try to become better the next time.
Linda Wolf: What do you tell young people who look out and see pollution, nature being destroyed, everything falling apart?
Maya Angelou: It seems terrible and it’s true; it is pretty terrible. There’s racism and sexism and ageism and all sorts of idiocies.
But bad news is not news. We’ve had bad news as a species for a long time. We’ve had slavery and human sacrifice and the Holocaust, and we’ve had brutalities of such measure that in truth today, sitting in Seattle, Washington, in 1995, we can’t imagine what Attila the Hun did; we can’t imagine the cruelties of the Inquisition. We can’t imagine it.
Today we say "Ahhh, how horrible!" But the truth is we have had bad news a long time. Somehow we have survived, amazingly. While on the one hand we have the brutes, the bigots, the bullies, and at the same time we have had men and women who dreamed great dreams. We’ve had Galileo and Aesop, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. Du Bois; we’ve had Sholem Asch, and Shalom Aleichem – great dreamers. We’ve had women who stood alone, whether it was Harriet Tubman or Mother Jones. We’ve had Margaret Sanger. We’ve had women who have stood in the gap and said, "I’m here to try to save the world."
So I would say – not to the young people, but to you and to other adults – bad news is not news. Somehow, miraculously, we’ve survived and had a chance to laugh at each other and with each other, and fall in love and honor each other, and make dinners for each other.
This is what young women and men should know. They should know that we are carnivorous yet we have decided somehow not only not to eat our brothers and sisters, who may be delicious, but to accord them some rights and to try to love them and look after them. Look at that. That’s amazing!
I don’t want young men and women looking around at this little lonely planet and saying, "Oh my God! Mea Culpa. It’s so awful." It’s bad, but it’s also good, and it’s up to each one of us to make it better – everyone of us. We deserve our future.
Linda Wolf: Dr. Angelou, what advice do you have for young people growing up today?
Maya Angelou: To laugh as much as possible. Always laugh; it is the sweetest thing one can do for oneself and one’s fellow human being. When people see the laughing face, even if they’re jealous of it, their burden is lightened. But do it first for yourself.
Laugh and dare to try to love somebody, starting with yourself. You must love yourself first, of course, and you must protect yourself when you can. You say, "Just a minute! I’m worth everything, dear."
If you really realize that, you realize everybody else is worth everything. Everybody, fat and thin and plain and pretty, white and black, rich and poor, thick and slow and brilliant, everybody is worth everything. Start with yourself though.
Linda Wolf is the co-founder of the Daughters/Sisters Project. (See Been There Done That in this issue.)