Tribute to Maya Angelou

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Tavis revisits past conversations with the pioneering and esteemed poet, writer, civil rights activist and professor.

Maya Angelou was celebrated as a poet and writer and had a notable career as an educator, producer, director, actress and civil rights activist. She was among the first African American women to hit the best-sellers lists and, in 1993, became only the second poet in U.S. history to write and recite original work at a presidential inauguration. A three-time spoken word Grammy winner, she published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies and TV shows spanning more than a half century. She was also active in the civil rights movement and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Angelou was honored with more than 50 awards, including the highest civilian honor in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and, since 1982, taught at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC), where she held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies.

A national treasure and a phenomenal woman, her inspiring legacy will live on.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, we continue our tribute to poet, author and activist, Maya Angelou, who died yesterday at her home in North Carolina at the age of 86.

Dr. Angelou was one of the nation’s most celebrated artists whose excellence and compassion made her an international star. In 2010, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian honor.

I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Angelou many times on this program. She was a wonderful and caring friend and her insights remain a beacon for all of us. Like so many others, I’m saddened by her death, but honored to have shared her life.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou coming up right now.

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Tavis: I am always honored and humbled just to be in her presence.

But to have the chance tonight for the full show, to sit down with the brilliant Dr. Maya Angelou, educator, historian, best-selling author, playwright, civil rights activist, producer, director, actress, friend, simply put, she’s a true renaissance woman.

Always honored to be in her presence, thrilled to have her here with us on the stage tonight in Los Angeles. My dear sister, nice to see you.

Maya Angelou: My dear, it’s my delight [laughs].

Tavis: You know, I’m getting it already ’cause every time I see you, I’m just so happy to see you all the time.

Angelou: Thank you.

Tavis: I’m glad that you’re here because we get a chance just to talk for a whole half an hour, whatever I want to talk about.

Angelou: That’s right.

Tavis: Nothing to pitch, nothing to sell, just a conversation.

Angelou: As they say in Harlem, “Bring it.”

Tavis: All right [laugh].

Angelou: Bring it.

Tavis: I’m gonna bring it then. Let me start with Harlem, since you mentioned that. You own a place in Harlem.

Angelou: I sure do.

Tavis: You moved back down south – and I want to talk about that in a second. But you own a place in Harlem.

Angelou: I sure do.

Tavis: When did you buy this place and do you love living there? You love being back there again?

Angelou: Oh, I love it. Harlem is claiming itself. It’s claiming its history. The people had it snatched away from them, you know. Now, mind you, it wasn’t all somebody else’s fault. Some of it was the Harlemites’ fault. But when it came to them what had happened, they began the systematic improvement of claiming their history.

So people in my block, down the street, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a place. And further down the street, “Skip” Gates, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, has a place. And a couple of blocks away, Roberta Flack has a place.

And everybody knows where everybody – I mean, the taxi drivers, the people who sell newspapers, all know where these luminaries live.

So a person was bringing – a taxi driver was bringing someone to my house and he slowed down the driver and said, “Where will I find Mount Morris Park?” And the fellow on the street said, “You looking for Dr. Maya Angelou’s place? She lives down the street. Turn left.”

Tavis: Yeah, they know you and love you in Harlem.

Angelou: Yes, they do.

Tavis: Let’s talk about America. In the context of the world that we live in, there are a lot of folk that, for a lot of reasons, some would argue legitimately that don’t like us. When you say it wasn’t just America that dropped the ball, but there are a lot of folk, Dr. Angelou, who don’t like us these days.

Angelou: That’s true.

Tavis: Are they justified in not liking us?

Angelou: Well, we’ve done some ugly things and we had done some ugly things before. But we had done some good things too. But the good things usually sort of balanced out the evil things.

However, now because of this pull-back and me against the world and you’re not in it and I don’t like you because of your language or the way you call God or your color or something, because of that, then I don’t have to make any effort to know you.

At one time, Tavis Smiley, Americans were not looked at with hate in various places in the world. And I’ve lived everywhere except Asia and I speak a number of languages, as you know.

Tavis: I heard you speak them, yeah.

Angelou: Yes. So I’ve heard it not as hearsay. I was living in the place and I knew how the people felt. At one time, people were proud to know an American, really.

At one time, you could sit on the Rue de la Paix in Paris or at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv or in Medina and you could see a person come in, Black, white, it didn’t matter. You said that’s an American because there’s a readiness to smile and to talk to people.

“Yes, uh-huh, yeah, I’m from Terre Haute, Indiana, yes. How you doing? And you don’t speak English?” [Laugh] But that charm, we’ve worn it off because of our reluctance to be and act as intelligently as we know we should.

And we have allowed ourselves to be molded into some of the dangerous shapes of some leaders who themselves will live in great luxury and can afford to protect themselves somewhat. But we are losing some birthright which we really dangerously will live without and maybe die without.

If we don’t plant the right things, we will reap the wrong things. It goes without saying. And you don’t have to be, you know, a brilliant biochemist and you don’t have to have an IQ of 150. Just common sense tells you to be kind, ninny, fool. Be kind.

Tavis: But, you know, you said to me one time, though, that being kind is what we ought to be. But you said to me, though, one time that, as you’ve gotten older, you come to believe – you said to me, Tavis, that courage is the greatest of all the virtues.

Angelou: That’s true.

Tavis: ‘Cause if you don’t have courage, you can’t practice any of the other virtues.

Angelou: That’s true.

Tavis: But it takes courage to be kind, does it not?

Angelou: Yes, it takes courage, but then, you see, you can develop courage. Courage, I don’t think anybody is born with courage. I think you may be born with a flair to braggadocio, you know [laugh]. That’s not courage.

Courage, you develop courage by doing small things like just as if you wouldn’t want to pick up a 100-pound weight without preparing yourself. So you start with five pounds, 10, 20, etc.

Well, with courage, you start by doing small things courageously, such as not sitting in a room when racial pejoratives are bandied about. I won’t sit in a room with Black people when the word that belittles whites is used. I will not. Or that belittles Japanese, the Jews or Muslims or Latinos. I will not. I know it’s poison.

I will not sit in a room with Black people when the “N” word is used. I know it was meant to belittle a person, so I will not sit there and have that poison put on me. Now a Black person can say, “Oh, you know, I can use this word because I’m Black.”

Well, Tavis Smiley, when the word was developed, it was developed as poison. If poison is in a vial with p-o-i-s-o-n on it and a skull and bones, it’s poison. You can take that same content and pour it into Bavarian crystal…

Tavis: And it’s still poison.

Angelou: You see? So to just say, “I will not do this” will take some courage.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you yet have come to realize the absolute impact that you have on people every time they come into your presence, every time they get a chance to see you conversing on television.

I don’t know that you still yet have figured out the impact that you really have on people.

Angelou: I don’t think that’s for me to figure out. That’s not my work. My work is to be honest. My work is to try to think clearly, then have the courage to make sure that what I say is the truth.

I don’t have to tell everything I know. Just make sure that what I say is what I truly believe and that I have worked at it. I have mulled over it. I have meditated. I have prayed over it.

Before I came here today, I prayed mightily not just for the audience or for you, but for the crew just in case I have something to say that might help somebody, might clarify, you know, to be a rainbow in the clouds.

Tavis: Your prayers, as usual I suspect, have been answered.

Angelou: Thank you.

Tavis: You know, this officially makes you the most recurring guest on this TV program.

Angelou: No. I didn’t know.

Tavis: You have the title now, the guest I’ve talked to the most on this program. You got my attention when you talked about truth. Let me ask you, if I can, to expand and expound upon that notion.

It seems to me – not just me. I think anyone could argue with good sense these days that whether you’re looking at government, whether you’re looking at corporate America or beyond, there is a sacrificing of truth these days, a lack of truth-telling. But let me shut up and ask if you agree or disagree.

Angelou: Okay. I do agree, but not just corporate and government. It seeps down so that people are not telling the truth in the family, you see, and even in the stores, in the beauty shop.

The beautician does a woman’s hair and knows she’s burnt something. And instead of saying, “I’ll make good on that,” she’ll say, “Oh, no, that’s not burnt. You came in here and it was broken.”

It’s unfortunate, but all virtues and vices begin at home and spread abroad. So if the vice begins high up, it does seep down. But if the virtue began high up, it also would seep down into smaller aggregates of society.

There’s a difference, you know, between facts and the truth. You can tell so many facts; you never get to the truth. You can tell the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, the methods how, blah, blah. The truth may just be absolutely blinded over by all that.

What does it mean to the human being? How did the human being survive that? What happens to his soul? What happens to your heart? That’s what you want.

So that’s the truth and I think that, if we try telling the truth to the children – see, a number of people lie to children and think they’re making it over because children have not been exposed.

So there are whites who say, “Oh, we’re not prejudice. Oh, no, we’ll have no pejoratives in this house. No, you can’t do it. We’re not prejudiced against anybody.” He says that to the child, to the children.

But the children see it at every dinner party, every cocktail party, every holiday. All the people look just like him and like his family. Then the child sooner or later has to say, “Do they think I’m a fool?” Or they do, and maybe I am, so I’m going to act just as they act.

That means they haven’t had enough courage to say, “I like you and I hope you like me. Would you come over and, you know, have a glass of apple juice with me? We might make a friendship here.”

Tavis: To that point, then, I wonder at this precarious and propitious time in America’s history whether or not you think that, as human beings, we are going to hell in a hand basket.

When you look around, there’s all kind of evidence to suggest that somehow as human beings, as God’s creation, we got off the track somewhere.

Angelou: Yeah. Do I think what?

Tavis: Do you think that human beings are going to hell in a hand basket?

Angelou: No, I do not.

Tavis: All right. Tell me why.

Angelou: Because you asked that question. The very fact that you asked the question means that it’s okay. We have a struggle to do. We have a lot to do. But I would be fearful, if not outright terrorized, if the question wasn’t asked, you see.

If people didn’t wonder and openly asked the question, where are we going? How does it fit? What does it cost? I mean, not in money, not commercially. But what does it cost in my soul? What is happening to me? If you didn’t ask that question, I would really be terrorized.

Tavis: Let me probe this, though. When you list names like Rosa Parks, Dr. King and let me throw in for the purpose of this conversation, Dr. Maya Angelou – and, again, our audience knows the profound love I have for you and your contribution.

When you throw names out there like that, sometimes I wonder whether or not the folk who are watching, who we’re trying to get to have some courage in their own lives, are intimidated by the examples of these larger than life people.

They don’t think of Maya Angelou when she couldn’t speak. They don’t think of Dr. King as a seminarian. They don’t think of Mrs. Parks as a seamstress. They think of these huge moments, I could never do that.

Angelou: I know. This is what alarms me. Now I’m very rarely terrorized, but I am alarmed when I hear people speak of the icons as if they’re not human or write books about them. They’ve always been that.

That’s not true. Of course, we can’t say that these people were larger than life. They were not. They were human beings like you and me and some terrible things happened to them. And some of them failed and some triumphed, but you have to let the young people know these were human beings.

Otherwise, they’ll say, “You mean to tell me, with the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Kennedys and Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer and blah, blah, you mean, we haven’t gotten any further because they were all this…?”

No. You have to tell them no. These were ordinary human beings in extraordinary times and behaved extraordinarily, but they are just like you and their work remains to be done.

Tavis: No introduction necessary here. My favorite guest of all time and, you know, more appearances on this program than anybody in the country.

Angelou: So I’m told. Thank you.

Tavis: How are you?

Angelou: I’m wonderful.

Tavis: You look wonderful. What does this day mean to you?

Angelou: Oh, my Lord. I look back over centuries to see this day. It’s hallelujah, it’s congratulations, it’s thank God, it’s thank my country, it’s thank Martin, thank Loretta and thank everybody. I’m in an attitude of gratitude.

Tavis: Attitude of gratitude [laugh].

Angelou: That’s it.

Tavis: When you sit down, what does this day from your perspective say to America? What ought this day say to America?

Angelou: Today, America is saying to us all by this day. America is saying, “I’m proud of you,” you see? I mean, if I’m here on the Mall, I’m here betwixt and between Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington. Those are the big white old dead great presidents and I’m a Black and I’m a man. I’m not a president, and I’m standing on this Mall.

I am being told by my country, “You can be proud of me because I’m proud of you. I’m not putting you where Langston Hughes said, ‘I too sing America. You make me eat in the kitchen, but someday you’ll see how beautiful I am and I will eat in the dining room with you. Now you see how beautiful I am.’

Tavis: What does this day, then, say to ordinary, everyday Americans about the kind of contribution you can make? King was not a president. He started out a young kid in Atlanta and went on to become, I think, the greatest American we’ve ever produced.

What does it say to everyday people about the kind of contribution you can make if you’re serious about it?

Angelou: It means that everybody can do it. See, in some ways, people make Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and all the great men and women seem larger than life and that’s dangerous because it tells young people, “You can never be that ’cause they’re bigger than life.”

Well, young people ought to be able to see. I mean, Black ones and I mean white ones and Asians and Spanish people. I mean, they should be able to see that and say, “Yes, I can.”

Tavis: What is, in your mind, the legacy of this great man finally?

Angelou: Love.

Tavis: Love.

Angelou: Not mush.

Tavis: Just love?

Angelou: Not mush. Not sentimentality, but love. I think it may be the element which keep the stars in the firmament. It may keep the blood rushing through the veins.

Tavis: And that’s why I love you [laughs]. Dr. Angelou, nice to see you.

Angelou: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you for the opportunity.

Angelou: I love seeing you.

Tavis: I love you.

Angelou: I love you.

Tavis: Let me get philosophical with you for just a second. I love having these philosophical conversations with you. Let me hit it and quit it. Just a quick philosophical thing.

Angelou: All right.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago that made me think about this. I was in a conversation the other day with a mutual friend of ours, Dr. Cornel West. And Doc was making a philosophical point to me and I got it.

He made the point that every one of us dies a failure. His argument was I don’t really believe in success because we all die failures. And I asked him to unpack that for me.

When he unpacked it, Dr. Angelou, what he said to me essentially was that we all die failures because, in the end, there’s stuff we didn’t get done. Nobody gets everything done while they’re here. Something’s gonna get left undone. Some project never got started.

So I wonder whether you might agree with that. And if so, what’s on your list of things that you didn’t get done?

Angelou: Well, no. I agree with Cornel West. That’s one of the bright – you know, we have some bright minds in our world and that’s one of them.

However, I think that we are also geniuses in that we did get some things done. We dared even to be able to dare to say that shows incredible intelligence and courage.

I think that what we have to do is see that we dared – we’re a carnivorous group who has decided not to eat our brothers and sisters who may be delicious [laugh], but to decide not only not to eat them, but to accord them some rights and to try to love them, whatever that mystery is.

It’s amazing. We are successful. We are triumphant. Here we are trying to be charitable, trying to be kind, trying to be loving. So I think we are absolutely successful.

I think, at the same time, we live such brief lives. We can’t get anything really done. We have to count on those who are yet to come. I live about that long in the sense of time. You know, it’s less than a second, so I live about that long.

And the chance I have of being important is a chance I have of bringing one piece of sand to the making of the pyramid. But I can do it, and if thousands and millions and multimillions of others do it, we build a pyramid.

My great blessing is my son, but I have daughters. I have white ones and Black ones and fat ones and thin ones and pretty ones and plain. I have gay ones and straight. I have daughters. I have Asian ones, I have Jewish ones, I have Muslim ones.

And I know because they FedEx me and email me and write to me from all over the world. It’s a blessing because one thing they know is I will not lie to them.

I may not always be right, but I will try to be right. And I will not tell everything I know, but I will try to make sure that what I say is the truth about being a human being, about being alive, about being courageous. Yes, being courage.

Tavis: I love that.

Angelou: That’s true.

Tavis: Let me close right quick with this. I have a copy on the wall in my house. I see it every day as I walk past this particular wall ’cause you can’t miss it in my house. So all my guests see it all the time.

When you walk in my house, you see a wonderful poem from a great sister named Maya Angelou and it’s called “On the Pulse of Morning.” It was delivered, of course, at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

You are my poet, my friend, my sister, my mother and my favorite guest, and I’m always glad to have you here.

Angelou: Thank you, my dear. God bless your heart and hello to our brand new world.

Tavis: Poet, author, activist, Dr. Maya Angelou. Her passing at the age of 86 is a loss for all of us who knew her, but her legacy continues. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 11, 2014 at 8:54 pm