The Poet: Dr. Maya Angelou


The venerable poet, writer, activist, dancer and singer Dr. Maya Angelou teaches that above all else, we are more alike than we are unalike. In this season’s final episode, listen to Dr. Angelou share insights into her life as a teacher, what it takes to be courageous and an emotional story from her time in Ghana visiting a wharf where slaves were once sold and traded. [“American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise” (2017)].

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Maya Angelou: Anyone who isn’t a hermit or a mute uses words. Everybody in the world uses “how are you,” “fine thank you,” verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns. The writer has to take these most known things, and put them together in such a way that a reader, knowing those things, says, “I never thought of it that way before.” It’s a challenge, and I love it.

Anna Drezen: That was Dr. Maya Angelou, who, while she’s best known as a poet, she’s so talented in so many different areas we really should call her a poet, dancer, singer, actor, director, activist, legend. Her fearless form of personal revelation earned her countless awards, and she is of course best known for her 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.” Dr. Angelou encouraged others to reclaim their histories, both personal and shared, and to build something positive from them. I’m your host Anna Drezen, and this is the American Masters podcast.

Maya Angelou: I moved to Ghana, and of course, once there, there was so many reasons to stay.  There were African-Americans who had moved to Ghana.  There were so many Africans, so many Ghanaians who had studied abroad.  And well, sometimes the Africans -- uh, they were people who, whose people had sold, uh, slaves.  It wasn’t as if white people came and took slaves.  You can’t take somebody from a country, if they don’t want to be -- you know if the country doesn’t agree.  There were people who actually sold slaves.  And, uh, although that had been 100 and some years earlier, there were people who still lived on land they had -- their parents had bought from selling slaves.  So, it was hard to say that, uh, this person had not been guilty in creating for me and mine the worst times in our lives, so there was that. And then there were people who didn’t believe I was an African-American.  There was one woman who almost hit me.  She -- I, I spoke Fante pretty well.  Um, and so, I was walking into a market, and a woman spoke to me in Ewe, and I said, oh, I’m sorry.  I don’t speak Ewe.  I said that in Fante.  And she lashed at me with the worst kind of words.  And, and, uh, I was with a, another friend who was Ewe, uh, an, and Ewe man.  And I said please tell Mother that -- she was an older woman, too.  Please tell Mother that, uh, I don’t speak Ewe. And so, he told her in, in Ewe, and she growled and said no.  This is -- you’re lying, too.  And she thought I was a daughter of a friend of hers who had gone to Ghana and, and studied medicine and was a nurse, and I was now putting myself up high over everybody else.  So, he asked me.  Do you have your passport?  I said I haven’t seen my passport since I got here.  Why, why would I carry my passport around?  He said do you have any identification?  Fortunately, I had an old San Francisco, California driver’s license with a photo.  And I pulled it out and showed it to her.  And this woman took both her hands and put them on her head, and she went running and wailing to the first stall where there was a woman selling coconuts.  And she ba, da, ba, da, “American Negro.”  And the woman put her hands on, on her head, and the other -- they kept going from place to -- and they’d just slide whatever they were selling to me. And Mr. Ewe -- Mr., uh, Adadevul [ph], said, um, he said these women are from Tullow, very near -- then, uh, but what was once Ghana.  And, uh, the slave sellers came and got the people and got the children, and, uh, women took their babies by their hand -- by their feet and slung them against trees, so that they wouldn’t be sold into slavery, killed them.  And, and the people, uh, those who could run away, ran away to a, a nearby village, and they hid.  But the slave owners or slave sellers gathered up as many as they could and took them to the, to the wharf and sold them. And so, the people looked at me, and thinking I look so much like them that maybe I was a daughter or the descendant of one of the people who had been taken.  So, we all wept.  It was quite a, a story. It was very difficult to, to have the imagination I had as a young woman and to be in the place where the slaves were taken and housed until the, a ship would come.  And some of those places were just so -- you could hear the wails.  I could hear the wails of the people in the rooms, in caverns, chained, knowing that they would never see their beloveds again, they would be put into ships and sailed across seas.

There’s a song, which was sung to me by one of the great Congo players of the world, Mongo Santamaria.  He taught me a song and I asked him what does it mean?  He said he didn’t know.  But his mother had all of the children learn to sing it, and he had been born in Cuba. So, he taught it to me, and I started to hold it at the time with my fingers.  He said, “No puedeas [ph].  You can’t do that.  You can’t do it like that. Uh, this is a religious song.”  So, I asked, “what does it mean?”  He said he didn’t know.  So, I learned the song.  I sang it to a woman I knew, a Nigerian woman.  She said you speak so many languages, but you only speak the South African language Khoisan, and you don’t speak any other language. At that time, I didn’t speak Fante.  So, I said but I know a song.  I think it’s, it’s, uh, it’s African, but I don’t know what it means.  So, I sang this song, and it was [Singing in African].  When I looked up at her, she was crying.  The tears were, just bathed her face, this Nigerian woman.  So, I said what is it?  She said sister, it’s a slave song.  It says Father, Father, they have taken me from my home, and they have brought me across water wetter than my tears.  And I will never see -- will your magic get me?  Can you come and get me?  Amazing.

And so the theme in my class-all the classes, no matter what I’m teaching is, I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me. That statement if you look under the man Terence with one “R” in the encyclopedia you will see beside his name in italics in Latin (says phrase in Latin) I am a human being. This was stated by an African, you see in italics (says phrase in Latin) he was an African slave, he was sold to a Roman senator. He was freed by that senator. He wrote the most popular plays in Rome. Those 5 of those plays and that one statement have come down to us from 154 B.C. This man not born white or free or with any chance he thought of ever becoming a citizen even in the Rome of his day. We have it. I am a human. When you can internalize that, you can never again say when the most horr- a person commits the most horrific crimes, you could never say, Oh I could never do that. No. You have the same components you can say I intend never to do that. I mean to use my energies constructively as opposed to destructively. But if you can do that with the negative just think of what you can do with the positive. If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody, writes a stunning book, does an important movie, a write or good documentary, you can learn from it. Take it, that was a human being. Well what my students do and after they’ve been with me for a semester, they go back into their classes on Physics and to their class on Latin, into their class in the athletic field, and realize whoever dreamed that dream originally was a human being. You can dare. And so they are never the same. I’m not the same either. A great teachers a great student, so they teach me. I had the three students with the names of three great country singers. Either the first name or the last name, and I have all their records, and they’re all white- and I said you have this name and did you know? Oh yes but how did you know? And when I bring them here, I bring my students once a year home and give them lunch and play some music and they really begin to see, “oh wait, she really means it. She lives that. Then I can try, I don’t have to do it all at one time, but I can do it little by little.” Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically, you can be kind and fair and just and merciful every now and then. But to be that thing time after time, from the time you wake up in the morning until you go to sleep at night, to be courageous, liberates you. So you don’t start out being so courageous you shout at somebody else, tell them you can’t do- you do it as if you are going to learn how to pick up 100 pound weight, you learn about being courageous about small things, and you develop the muscle of courage, and before you know it you’re in a room without the big time people and somebody says something that you know is hurtful or says something to you that is despicable, and you can say not me you don’t. Not me. Well, I gave you a job. Well, you may have it. I was looking for a job when I found this one. See you found your courage and it makes you entire.

I used to think I was a writer who could teach. The last 10 or 15 years I now I’m a teacher who can write. I mean I have 30 books out and they do very well and I’m blessed with that. But I’m really a teacher. And when I when I get a class together. Here or anywhere in the world, I look at them and think, “you poor dears, ha you poor little darlings, you think that you’ve come to be taught by a celebrity?” I promise you you’ll never work as hard in your life as you’ll work in my class, but you’ll never be the same either. When you leave my class you’ll be different.