Maya Angelou 1928 -2014

Written by Clara Waters

Maya Angelou stands out for her compassion and love of humankind.
During an interview in the later part of her life Maya Angelou was asked about the task she had set herself before dying. Her immediate reply was, “I want to be a Christian. …To be it. …A kind person. An inclusive person. Merciful even, not just just but merciful.”

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that when the interviewer referred to Maya Angelou’s own experience as a victim of rape at the tender age of seven and asked about the advice she would give to rape victims and their loved ones, she said,” I don’t carry the bitterness of it. I would say to everybody: do your best not to give passage and harbour to bitterness. Bitterness is stupid. It’s like cancer. It eats upon the host. That’s a waste of energy and almost a waste of life.”

In the same interview Maya Angelou talked about her love of language, “… I love the sound of the human voice and I love the way we try to translate ourselves to each other by language.” She also said that through her use of language as a writer of lyrics, poems or books her main aims had been to show that “Human beings are more alike than we are unalike” and that “we may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. … it may be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who the hell we are. What can we overcome? What makes us stumble and fall? Somehow miraculously rise and go on?”

Maya Angelou went on to say that as a result of her rapist being found kicked to death in the street after she had named him, her seven year old self had felt responsible and she stopped speaking for almost six years. “I thought my voice had killed him.” She communicated through writing and read all the books that she could find. Thus it was that around the age or nine or ten, Maya Angelou discovered Shakespeare and memorised some fifty of his sonnets. Sonnet 29, ‘When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’ struck a particular chord. “I couldn’t believe that he was white. How can he know what it feels like to be me … When, in disgrace ….” Maya Angelou proceeded to recite the sonnet with great feeling-

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

When the interviewer made reference to Maya Angelou working briefly as a prostitute as a teenager, she said she had written ‘Gather together in my name’ in which this phase of her life is mentioned because so many adults hide their mistakes from young people. She thought she would tell the children, “Listen I‘ve done this. I have forgiven myself.” She added, “I was afraid that when I told it, there would be a worldwide, certainly nationwide sneering at me. Just the opposite happened. People were so grateful. That somebody told the children, listen you may make many mistakes … but you must not be defeated.”

When asked if she had any regrets, Maya Angelou predictably replied, “That’s a waste of time, isn’t it?” And how would she like to be remembered? “As one who is mostly funny, cheerful, with some courage.”

Source: Face to Face: Maya Angelou by Jeremy Isaacs – From the Archive - BBC Interviews with Influential Figures of the 20th Century