Conversations with Maya Angelou

[(interview date 1983) In the following interview, originally conducted in 1983, Angelou discusses the influence of other writers, social conditions, and her own experience upon her work.]

A brilliant scholar of American, women’s, and African-American literature, Claudia Tate succumbed to small cell lung cancer in Fair Haven, New Jersey, on 29 July 2002. She was fifty-five years old and in the midst of a new research project. Claudia Tate always exceeded the normative “protocols,” as she termed them, of literature, scholarship, and race. Against prevailing assumptions that prized only writing in the political protest vein, she insisted that the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century black women writers was important and fully worthy of the sustained, thoughtful, Freudian criticism she provided. Tate’s iconoclasm immeasurably enriched criticism of African-American authors, especially, but not exclusively women. Tate's legacies are several: to her scholarly field, a far more capacious literary criticism; to her students and colleagues, friendship and professional advancement; to her family and friends, an unforgettable personality and the warmth of permanent commitment.

Maya Angelou: Image making is very important for every human being. It is especially important for black American women in that we are, by being black, a minority in the United States, and by being female, the less powerful of the genders. So, we have two areas we must address. If we look out of our eyes at the immediate world around us, we see whites and males in dominant roles. We need to see our mothers, aunts, our sisters, and grandmothers.

We need to see Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, women of our heritage. We need to have these women preserved. We need them all:

… Constance Motley, Etta Motten. … All of these women are important as role models. Depending on our profession, some may be even more important.

Zora Neale Hurston means a great deal to me as a writer. So does Josephine Baker, but not in the same way because her profession is not directly related to mine. Yet I would imagine for someone like Diahann Carroll or Diana Ross, Miss Baker must mean a great deal. I would imagine that Bessie Smith and Mammie Smith, though they are important to me, would be even more so to Aretha Franklin.

If I were a black male writer, I would think of Frederick Douglass, who was not just a politician, but as a writer was stunning. In the nineteenth century I would think of William Wells Brown, Martin Delaney, and certainly David Walker, who showed not only purpose but method. In the twentieth century I would think of Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, and so on. They mean a great deal to me. I’m black, and they experienced America as blacks.

These particular writers may mean more to the black male writer, just as I imagine Jack Johnson would mean a great deal to Jesse Owens, and Jesse Owens a great deal to Arthur Ashe.

 

Claudia Tate: When you write, are you particularly conscious of preserving certain kinds of images of black people?

Maya Angelou: Well, I am some time, though I can’t actually say when this happens in the creation of the work. I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music. Once I left church, and as I walked down the street, three young black women stopped me and asked if I would have a glass of wine with them. I said, “Yes.” One is a painter; one is an actress, and one a singer. We talked, and when I started to leave, I tried to tell them what it means to me to see young black women. I tried to tell them, but I could hardly explain it. My eyes filled with tears. In one way, it means all the work, all the loneliness and discipline my work exacts, demands, is not in vain. It also means, in a more atavistic, absolutely internal way, that I can never die. It’s like living through children. So when I approach a piece of work, that is in my approach, whether it’s a poem that might appear frivolous or is a serious piece. In my approach I take as fact that my work will be carried on.

 

 Claudia Tate: Did you envision young Maya as a symbolic character for every black girl growing up in America?

 

Maya Angelou: Yes, after a while I did. It’s a strange condition, being an autobiographer and a poet. I have to be so internal, and yet while writing, I have to be apart from the story so that I don’t fall into indulgence. Whenever I speak about the books, I always think in terms of the Maya character.

When I wrote the teleplay of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I would refer to the Maya character so as not to mean me. It’s damned difficult for me to preserve this distancing. But it’s very necessary.

 

Claudia Tate: What has been the effect of the women’s movement on black women?

 

Maya Angelou: Black women and white women are in strange positions in our separate communities.

In the social gatherings of black people, black women have always been predominant. That is to say, in the church it’s always Sister Hudson, Sister Thomas and Sister Witheringay who keep the church alive. In lay gatherings it’s always Lottie who cooks, and Mary who’s going over to Bonita’s where there is a good party going on. Also, black women are the nurturers of children in our community. White women are in a different position in their social institutions. White men, who are in effect their fathers, husbands, brothers, their sons, nephews and uncles, say to white women, or imply in any case: “I don’t really need you to run my institutions. I need you in certain places and in those places you must be kept–in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the nursery, and on the pedestal.” Black women have never been told this. Black women have not historically stood in the pulpit, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that they built the churches and maintain the pulpits. The people who have historically been heads of institutions in black communities have never said to black women–and they, too, are their fathers, husbands, brothers, their sons, nephews and uncles–“We don’t need you in our institutions.” So there is a fundamental difference.

One of the problems I see that faces black women in the eighties, just as it has in the past two decades, has been dealt with quite well in Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. A number of black men in the sixties fell for a terrible, terrible ploy. They felt that in order to be total and free and independent and powerful, they had to be like white men to their women. So there was a terrible time when black men told their women that if you really love me, you must walk three steps behind me.

I try to live what I consider a “poetic existence.” That means I take responsibility for the air I breathe and the space I take up. I try to be immediate, to be totally present for all my work. I try. This interview with you is a prime example of this. I am withdrawing from the grief that awaits me over the death of someone dear so that I can be present for you, for myself, for your work and for the people who will read it, so I can tell you exactly how I feel and what I think and try to answer your questions cheerfully–if I feel cheerful–as I can. That to me is poetic. I try for concentrated consciousness which I miss by more than half, but I’m trying.

 

Claudia Tate: How do you fit writing into your life?

Maya Angelou: Writing is a part of my life; cooking is a part of my life. Making love is a part of my life; walking down the street is a part of it. Writing demands more time, but it takes from all of these other activities. They all feed into the writing. I think it’s dangerous to concern oneself too damned much with “being an artist.” It’s more important to get the work done. You don’t have to concern yourself with it, just get it done. The pondering pose–the back of the hand glued against the forehead–is baloney.

People spend more time posing than getting the work done. The work is all there is. And when it’s done, then you can laugh, have a pot of beans, stroke some child’s head, or skip down the street.

 

Claudia Tate: What is your responsibility as a writer?

Maya Angelou: My responsibility as a writer is to be as good as I can be at my craft.

So I study my craft. I don’t simply write what I feel, let it all hang out. That’s baloney. That’s no craft at all. Learning the craft, understanding what language can do, gaining control of the language, enables one to make people weep, make them laugh, even make them go to war. You can do this by learning how to harness the power of the word. So studying my craft is one of my responsibilities. The other is to be as good a human being as I possibly can be so that once I have achieved control of the language, I don’t force my weaknesses on a public who might then pick them up and abuse themselves.

During the sixties some lecturers went to universities and took thoughtless liberties with young people. They told them “to turn on, tune in and drop out.” People still do that. They go to universities and students will ask them, “Mr. So-and-So, Ms./Miss./Mrs./Brother/Sister So-and-So, these teachers here at this institution aren’t happening, like what should we do?” Many lecturers have said, “Don’t take it! Walk out! Let your protest be seen.”

That lecturer then gets on a plane, first-class, with a double scotch on-the-rocks, jets off to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a few days’ rest, then travels to some other place where he or she is being paid two to three thousand dollars to speak. Those young people risk and sometimes lose their scholastic lives on that zoom because somebody’s been irresponsible. I loathe that. I will not do it. I am responsible. I am trying to be responsible.

So first, I’m always trying to be a better human being, and second, I continue to learn my craft. Then, when I have something positive to say, I can say it beautifully. That’s my responsibility.

Do you see any distinctions in the ways black male and female writers dramatize their themes and select significant events? This is a general question, but perhaps there is some basis for analysis. Gayl Jones responded to this question by saying she thought women tended to deal with events concerning the family, the community, personal events, that were not generally thought to be important by male writers. She said that male writers tended to select “representative” events for the significant events in their works.

Claudia Tate: Toni Bambara said she thought women writers were concerned with developing a circumscribed place from which the story would unfold. Have you observed such patterns in your reading?

Maya Angelou: I find those observations interesting. In fact, the question is very interesting.

I think black male writers do deal with the particular, but we are so conditioned by a sexist society that we tend to think when they do so that they mean it representationally; and when black females deal with the particular they only mean it as such. Whether we look at works by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, or John Killens–I’m thinking of novelists–we immediately say this is a generalization; this is meant as an overview, a microcosmic view of the world at large. Yet, if we look at works by Toni Morrison or Toni Bambara, if we look at Alice Walker’s work or Hurston’s, Rosa Guy’s, Louise Meriwether’s, or Paule Marshall’s, we must say that these works are meant as general statements, universal statements. If Daddy Was a Numbers Runner [by Louise Meriwether] is not a microcosm of a macrocosm, I don’t know what it is. If Paule Marshall’s Chosen Place and Timeless People is not a microcosm, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what Ruby [by Rosa Guy] is if it is not a microcosm of a larger world. I see everybody’s work as an example of the particular, which is indicative of the general.

I don’t see any difference really. Whether it’s Claude Brown’s or Gayl Jones’s. I can look at Manchild in the Promised Land and at Corregidora and see that these writers are talking about particular situations and yet about the general human condition. They are instructive for the generalities of our lives. Therefore, I won’t indulge inherent distinctions between men and women writers.

 

Claudia Tate: Do you consider your quartet to be autobiographical novels or autobiographies?

 

Maya Angelou: They are autobiographies. When I wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I wasn’t thinking so much about my own life or identity. I was thinking about a particular time in which I lived and the influences of that time on a number of people. I kept thinking, what about that time? What were the people around young Maya doing? I used the central figure–myself–as a focus to show how one person can make it through those times.

I really got roped into writing The Caged Bird. At that time I was really only concerned with poetry, though I’d written a television series. Anyway, James Baldwin took me to a party at Jules Feiffer’s house. It was just the four of us: Jimmy Baldwin and me, Jules Feiffer and his wife, at that time Judy Feiffer. We sat up until three or four o’clock in the morning, drinking scotch and telling tales. The next morning Judy Feiffer called a friend of hers at Random House and said, “You know the poet, Maya Angelou?

If you can get her to write a book …” Then Robert Loomis at Random House phoned, and I said, “No, I’m not interested.” I went out to California and produced my series for WNET. Loomis called two or three times, and I said, “No, I’m not interested. Thank you so much.” Then, I’m sure he talked to Baldwin because he used a ploy which I’m not proud to say I haven’t gained control of yet. He called and said, “Miss Angelou, it’s been nice talking to you. I’m rather glad you decided not to write an autobiography because to write an autobiography as literature is the most difficult thing anyone could do.” I said, “I’ll do it.” Now that’s an area I don’t have control of yet at this age. The minute someone says I can’t, all my energy goes up and I say, what? What? I’m still unable to say that you may be wrong and walk away. I’m not pleased with that. I want to get beyond that.

 

Claudia Tate: How did you select the events to present in the autobiographies?

Maya Angelou: Some events stood out in my mind more than others. Some, though, were never recorded because they either were so bad or so painful, that there was no way to write about them honestly and artistically without making them melodramatic. They would have taken the book off its course. All my work, my life, everything is about survival. All my work is meant to say, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” In fact, the encountering may be the very experience which creates the vitality and the power to endure.

 

Claudia Tate: You are a writer, poet, director, composer, lyricist, dancer, singer, journalist, teacher and lecturer. Can you say what the source of such creative diversity is?

Maya Angelou: I don’t do the dancing anymore. The rest I try. I believe talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it. Electricity makes no judgment. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that. It makes no judgment. I think talent is like that. I believe every person is born with talent. I believe anyone can learn the craft of painting and paint.

 I believe all things are possible for a human being, and I don’t think there’s anything in the world I can’t do. Of course, I can’t be five feet four because I’m six feet tall. I can’t be a man because I’m a woman. The physical gifts are given to me, just like having two arms is a gift. In my creative source, whatever that is, I don’t see why I can’t sculpt. Why shouldn’t I? Human beings sculpt. I’m a human being. I refuse to indulge any man-made differences between myself and another human being. I will not do it. I’m not going to live very long. If I live another fifty years, it’s not very long. So I should indulge somebody else’s prejudice at their whim and not for my own convenience! Never happen! Not me!

Claudia Tate: How do you integrate protest in your work?

Maya Angelou: Protest is an inherent part of my work. You can’t just not write about protest themes or not sing about them. It’s a part of life. If I don’t agree with a part of life, then my work has to address it.

I remember in the early fifties I read a book, Dom Casmurro. It was written by Machado De Assis, a nineteenth-century Brazilian. I thought it was very good. A month later I thought about the book and went back and reread it.

Two months later I read the book again, and six months later I realized the sensation that I had had while reading the book was as if I had walked down to a beach to watch a sunset. I had watched the sunset and turned around, only to find that while I had been standing there the tide had come in over my head. I decided to write like that. I would never get on a soapbox; instead, I would pull in the reader. My work is intended to be slowly absorbed into the system on deeper and deeper levels.

Claudia Tate: Would you describe your writing process?

Maya Angelou: I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.

I keep a hotel room in which I do my work–a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working.

When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment.

I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I’ll try to straighten it out in the morning. When I’ve finished the creative work and the editing and have six hundred handwritten pages, I send it to my editor. Then we both begin to work. I’ve kept the same editor through six books. We have a relationship that’s kind of famous among publishers, since oftentimes writers shift from one publisher to another for larger advances. I just stay with my own editor, and we’ll be together as long as he and I are alive. He understands my work rhythm, and I understand his. We respect each other, but the nitpicking does come. He’ll say, “This bothers me–on page twelve, line three, why do you have a comma there? Do you mean to break the flow?”

 

Claudia Tate: How do you feel about your past works?

Maya Angelou: Generally, I forget them. I’m totally free of them. They have their own life. I’ve done well by them, or I did the best I could, which is all I can say. I’m not cavalier about work anymore than I am about sitting here with you, or cooking a meal, or cleaning my house. I’ve tried to be totally present, so that when I’m finished with a piece of work, I’m finished.

I remember one occasion when we were in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria some years ago. I think I was with my sister friends–Rosa [Guy], Paule [Marshall] and Louise [Meriwether]. We were sitting at a table near the bandstand during some tribute for someone, and I felt people staring at me. Someone was singing, say, stage left, and some people were performing a dance. It was very nice, but I felt people staring; so I turned around, and they were. My sister friends were all smiling. I wondered what was happening. I had been following the performance. Well, it turned out that the singer was doing a piece of mine, and they had choreographed a dance to it. I had forgotten the work altogether. The work, once completed, does not need me. The work I’m working on needs my total concentration. The one that’s finished doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to itself.

 

 

Claudia Tate: Would you comment on your title selections?

Maya Angelou: As you probably know, the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is from [Paul Lawrence] Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” Gather Together in My Name, though it does have a biblical origin, comes from the fact I saw so many adults lying to so many young people, lying in their teeth, saying, “You know, when I was young, I never would have done … Why I couldn’t … I shouldn’t … ” Lying. Young people know when you’re lying; so I thought for all those parents and non-parents alike who have lied about their past, I will tell it.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas comes from a time in the twenties and thirties when black people used to have rent parties.

On Saturday night from around nine when they’d give these parties, through the next morning when they would go to church and have the Sunday meal, until early Sunday evening was the time when everyone was encouraged to sing and swing and get merry like Christmas so one would have some fuel with which to live the rest of the week.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie refers to my belief that we as individuals in a species are still so innocent that we think we could ask our murderer just before he puts the final wrench upon the throat, “Would you please give me a cool drink of water?” and he would do so. That’s innocence. It’s lovely.

The tune of Oh, Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well originally comes from a slave holler, and the words from a nineteenth-century spiritual:

 

Oh, pray my wings are gonna fit me well.

I’m a lay down this heavy load.

I tried them on at the gates of hell.

I’m a lay down this heavy load.

 

I planned to put all the things bothering me–my heavy load–in that book, and let them pass.

The title poem of And Still I Rise refers to the indomitable spirit of black people. Here’s a bit of it:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

 

Claudia Tate: Can black women writers help clarify or help to resolve the black sexist debate that was rekindled by Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf and Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman?

 

Maya Angelou: Neither Miss Shange nor Miss Wallace started the dialogue, so I wouldn’t suggest any black woman is going to stop it. If anything could have clarified the dialogue, Toni Morrison’s The Song of Solomon should have been the work to do that. I don’t know if that is a chore or a goal black women writers should assume. If someone feels so inclined, then she should go on and do it.

 Everything good tends to clarify. By good I mean well written and well researched. There is nothing so strong as an idea whose time has come.

The writer–male or female–who is meant to clarify this issue will do so. I, myself, have no encouragement in that direction. There’s a lot that hasn’t been said. It may be necessary to hear the male view of For Colored Girls in a book or spoken upon the stage. It may be necessary, and I know it will be very painful.

 

Claudia Tate: What writers have influenced your work?

Maya Angelou: There were two men who probably formed my writing ambition more than any others. They were Paul Lawrence Dunbar and William Shakespeare. I love them. I love the rhythm and sweetness of Dunbar’s dialect verse. I love “Candle Lighting Time” and “Little Brown Baby.” I also love James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation.”

I am also impressed by living writers. I’m impressed with James Baldwin.

I continue to see not only his craftsmanship but his courage. That means a lot to me. Courage may be the most important of all the virtues because without it one cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. I’m impressed by Toni Morrison a great deal. I long for her new works. I’m impressed by the growth of Rosa Guy. I’m impressed by Ann Petry. I’m impressed by the work of Joan Didion. Her first collection, Slouching Toward Jerusalem, contains short pieces, which are absolutely stunning. I would walk fifty blocks in high heels to buy the works of any of these writers. I’m a country girl, so that means a lot.

 Claudia Tate: Have any of your works been misunderstood?

Maya Angelou: A number of people have asked me why I wrote about the rape in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. They wanted to know why I had to tell that rape happens in the black community. I wanted people to see that the man was not totally an ogre. The hard thing about writing or directing or producing is to make sure one doesn’t make the negative person totally negative.

I try to tell the truth and preserve it in all artistic forms.

 

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