Dr. Maya Angelou is a highly respected poet laureate, and author of multiple books, including the classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I was honored to talk to her several years ago about how she overcomes fear, and remains courageous and positive despite uncertainty. Below are the highlights of our talk.
Dr. Angelou, you are such an inspiration to so many, exuding goodness and positivity. Now that I have your attention first thing in the morning, I want to know, do you always wake up hopeful and inspired, or do you have to work at it?
Both. That is to say I wake up, so that’s already having done something right. I am 80, so whoever made this statement is absolutely correct; it’s attributed to Art Linkletter and Bette Davis: “Growing old is not for sissies.” It’s absolutely true. And so when I turn over and say, “I didn’t know I had that muscle,” the truth is, the moment I say that, I start to smile. I do have the muscle and I can recognize it and I can even speak about it. So I am very blessed.
What gives you hope today?
I hope that the elected officials come into agreement on this stimulus plan. I hope our country can pick its hat up off the ground again. It seems as if we’ve lost something which is very much a part of being an American, and it is, “Yes I Can.” I said that 25 years ago, that if you wanted to know an American, and to encapsulate an American in three words, it is, “Yes I Can.” I can be as rude and crazy as you can imagine, and on the other hand, I can be as kind and generous and charitable… I can do it. Yes I Can.
You lived through the Great Depression, with your grandmother, who remained successful through her sales of basic commodities at a general store. How did you view the hardship around you during that time?
I didn’t realize that it was a hard time.
In your experience, how was the Great Depression different or similar to the financial crisis we face today?
We’ve become a nation of consumers and shoppers so that we buy things we don’t even need and some things we can’t even afford, and somehow we’ve allowed ourselves to be exiled to things… So “I own this and that’s who I am.” No. That’s that, and you are who you are.
You must have had numerous reasons in your life to be angry.
Oh, yes, I will be angry. I won’t be bitter. See, bitterness is like cancer. So I will never be bitter. I will be angry. Unjust things make me angry.
What do you feel we should do with our justified anger?
Write letters. Protest. Don’t whine. Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood. But protest, yes, all the way to the Supreme Court. I will be the tall black lady out there picketing… Yes. I will not condone cruelty. I will not condone unjust actions.
Who or what has been the most influential thing, person, or place in your life?
I’ll tell you a story, and I think about it once a week or maybe more frequently if I’m in certain circumstances. I was raised by my father’s mother, my paternal grandmother, in a little village in Arkansas, and my grandmother owned the only black-owned store in the little village, and there was a window in this store, and my grandmother was very tall and imposing. When she died, she was over six foot, so she probably, to my little size, must have seemed a giant. She would call me… I’d be somewhere in the store. We lived in the store as well, there were bedrooms in the store, and kitchens, all in one building. And she’d call me. I could tell from the way she’d speak my name what was going to happen. I knew I was going to meet a complainer. I would go into the store and she would say, “Just stand right there.” And I’d look out the window, and truly, someone who whined a lot would be coming. My grandmother would greet the person, “Hello, Brother Phillips. How are you feeling today?” And he would say, “I can stand this… It’s so bad it just makes me sweat and I can’t get comfortable and I get so much rash.” And my grandmother would say, “Mmmm, hmmm,” and then look at me, pointedly. Someone would come in another kind of weather– it was cold, or hot– and, complaining, would say, “How do you feel today?” And there would be that complaint …. My grandmother would say “Mmm, hmmm,” and look at me. When the person would leave, my grandmother would call me in front of her and say, “Sister, there are people all over the world, white and black, rich and poor, who went to sleep when this person went to sleep last night, and they never woke up. Their beds have become their cooling boards. Their blankets have become their winding sheets. And they would give anything for just five minutes of what that person was complaining about.
I’ve had so many teachable moments. My grandmother taught me at each one of mine, so that when I said that to you, I could almost hear her saying that to me at 7 years old, and at 12, and at 13.
It seems there is always something to complain about or something to be thankful for.
I know. I have a saying I like to say to my staff, “Try to keep an attitude of gratitude.” To actually say thank you. Thank you that I got up. Thank you that I can feel the floor under my feet. Thank you that I can stand. Thank you that I can say thank you. And if you have any religious belief in a greater being, then you really have something to say.
Do you feel that attitude is important then?
Well yes. I’m saying thanks to God. Thank you… that I turned left instead of turning right and avoided a head on collision. Thank you… for the things I don’t even know I’ve gotten. Thanks to those millions of things I get every day.
Is there anything that you fear?
No, not really. I don’t like to go into people’s houses when they have large threatening dogs. I am really trying to think what I fear… If I did think of something, I wouldn’t give it the strength to name it.
You have said that as humans, we are more alike than not alike. What is the most common thread we all share?
That’s true. Everybody in the world wants a job, a good job, wants to be needed in the job, wants to be paid a little more than she’s worth– not enough to be embarrassed about– but a little more than she thought she was going to get. Everybody wants children, wants healthy children. Everybody– Birmingham, Alabama, Birmingham, England. Everybody wants someone to love. And maybe to get love in return. Everybody. Just having children, that’s hope. Just living, that’s faith that I’m going to have the next breath.
Where we are dissimilar is tangential. I could be Ms. Godfrey and you could be Ms. Angelou. If I had grown up in a certain neighborhood or a certain environment, I would have a certain mindset, I am sure. But there is nothing a human being can feel that I can’t feel or have the possibility of feeling. No matter how heinous the crime, I have to say that if a human being did it, I have within myself all the wherewithal… I intend to use my energy constructively instead of destructively. If I can say that about the negative, then what about the positive, then what about the faith and the hope I can garner from someone who loves somebody, from someone who is trying to make the world a better place? What about me identifying with someone who is charitable?
So it sounds like that gives you hope, to see potential?
Yes, it does.
Some of my very favorite quotes of yours are about courage being the most important of all of the virtues. Do you always feel courageous, or do you need to look to others, or how do you get your courage?
I’m generally courageous. I usually don’t have to question. But if I feel that I need courage, if something happens and I feel I need for courage, then I think about that statement. And I’m a child of God.
What would you tell those who don’t feel so courageous today?
Sit down. Go inside yourself. Don’t look outside for it. Look what you’ve overcome already. And some of the things no one ever knows but you. Some of the harassment and some of the bullying and some of the neglect that you’ve come through already, and still you say “good morning,” and try to keep your body clean and wear clean clothes and speak in a decent voice, and decently, and still you have courtesy, and really do say kind words, and you really are concerned about the baby who is kidnapped, and you are concerned about the woman who has now had 14 children– you really are concerned about her, and the children. And yet look what you have come through, the times you were afraid and lived through that.
Interview originally published in Attitude Digest magazine.