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Maya Angelou: The greatest black woman ever

THE GREATEST: Author Maya Angelou

MY HEART was broken, as yours should have been, at the news of the passing of Dr Maya Angelou. She was the greatest black woman ever. I only spoke to her once, in March 2012, yet she had a unique ability to make everybody she spoke to feel like they were the dearest and most cherished member of her extended family.

With her death, we didn’t just lose a great poet, author, chronicler and the wisest of all our elders; we also lost an auntie a ‘Big Auntie’ to us all.

With the greatest respect ‘Big Auntie’ here is a transcript of our conversation:

DOTUN: Dr Angelou, you’ve just received a BET Literary Arts Award. One of many awards that you’ve received in your adult life. But watching your acceptance speech, it really seemed like this award particularly really meant more to you than all the others.


MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, it has great resonance, as well as great reverence and reference. Particularly because it was from Black Entertainment Television, which means African-American people have chosen me to receive that award. Also, because it was presented to me by the First Lady, Mrs Obama, and she spoke for about five minutes on my work and its impact on herself and on her husband over the last 20 years. So you know that that put starch in my backbone. It made me more erect to feel like this. I received last year the Presidential Award for Freedom from President Obama and that was very meaningful to me since I’m a member of the group most recently bought and sold - with everybody’s agreement. That (Presidential Award for Freedom) meant a lot to me and this means a lot to me as well.

DOTUN:  Indeed. And you have the President’s ear. That’s what this underlines. You are influential in his philosophical thoughts. Mr Obama listens to you.
MAYA ANGELOU: I wouldn’t take advantage of that.

DOTUN: Nevertheless it makes sense that the President and his wife listen to you because you are described as “the sage of America.” 
(she laughs)
That is how they describe you, Dr Angelo. Does that sit uncomfortably with you?
MAYA ANGELOU: (still laughing). The sage that doesn’t know...I don’t know enough to be called a sage. I respect understanding, I respect intelligence, I respect courage. If those three elements come together in any person that person might be called a sage. But I don’t know any person who would say “Yes!” if someone said “Would the sage stand up?” I don’t know anyone who would have the perspicacity to actually stand up and say, “I’m here.” (Still laughing).

DOTUN: When you were last in conversation at a theatre in south London, it was an emotional night and a lot of tears were shed because you informed us that it might be the last time you were visiting us on these shores. 
MAYA ANGELOU: It might be, although I don’t know if that’s so. It’s just that I’m a patient of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) meaning that I have to have oxygen at least every two to three hours. I have to fly BA because it is the only airline I know which promises to give me enough oxygen to make a seven hour flight.

DOTUN: You would have to go through all of that to reach here?
MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, exactly. But I’m still hoping to come to England. I like London a lot. I don’t know Manchester very well but I have spoken up there.

DOTUN: Your career didn’t start with writing did it?
MAYA ANGELOU: Actually I thought of myself as a dancer, I was really a dancer, it was the only profession I ever loved, except writing. Once a dancer, always a dancer. You can be a hundred pounds overweight and a hundred years old but you still think in terms of dance - of that sweep, of that wonderful elegance and arching of the body. Although I don’t dance now, I do in my mind. After dancing, when I couldn’t really make a living as a dancer, I started singing and I sang well enough to be paid by it. But I never loved it, so I never had a chance of becoming great.


Whatever you’re going (to do), in order to become great at it you have to love it. And be willing and ready to sacrifice for it. And I wasn’t. I was willing to sacrifice a little bit, but not everything. For writing it didn’t matter. I’d stay up all night and read Roget’s Thesaurus or ten sonnets of Shakespeare to help my mind.

DOTUN: You were also the first black conductor on the San Francisco tram service.
MAYA ANGELOU: I wasn’t a conductor, I was a conductorette, which meant I took the money and took transfers and things like that, but I didn’t run the train. And I lied to get the job. I was barely sixteen. I had seen women working on the street cars and I liked their jaunty uniforms and their caps and money changers at their waist. I really liked it and I didn’t notice at all that the women were all white; I just noticed that they were women. My mother told me to go and apply (for the job) and I went there and nobody would even give me an application. When I told my mother that they wouldn’t give me an application she said do you know why not and I said, “Yes, because I’m a Negro.” She said: “All right, now do you want the job?” And I said, “Yes.” She said “Go get it.” So that meant going and sitting in the office whilst the white girls that worked there all but spat on me. They said really vulgar things. Anyway, I sat there. After two weeks or thereabouts a man came out and asked me into his office and after that I got the job.

DOTUN: This was of course in the bad old days of segregation in the United States.
MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, those bad old days, and today there’s still some bad old days because racism is still very much alive and very much unwell. This is no time to rub our hands with glee and say it’s all over now but the shouting. That wouldn’t be wise.


DOTUN: But it’s not the same is it?
MAYA ANGELOU: You’re absolutely right. And I don’t mean to infer that it’s the same. The struggle is not over.

DOTUN: Will it ever be over then? Will there ever be a point where it’s not a struggle?
MAYA ANGELOU: Yes, I believe when intelligence rules the roost. I believe it is simply ignorance that keeps people from seeing I AM A HUMAN BEING. Nothing human can be alien to me. It’s only intelligence that allows a person not just to see it, but to say it, to know it.

If you had said to me a few years ago would there be a black president in the White House during my lifetime I would have said, “I doubt it.” So I can’t say what will happen in the next 50 years, but it’s been a long time coming... Racial prejudices and sexual prejudices have been a long time getting themselves together here so I wouldn’t expect them to be eradicated so quickly.

We mustn’t say it’s all over but the shouting. We must continue to exalt the human being in each one of us.....

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