Listen to the interview with Maya Angelou here.
“Words are music written for the human tongue and ear.”
While the poets of the past were revered by many, few poets today command the level of respect that is awarded Maya Angelou. Her smooth, lyrical way of speaking has turned the ear of millions around the world.
“I read my work aloud and I encourage students, my students anyways, and all to read whatever you write. Go into a room, close the door and read it and hear how it sounds. Hear the rhythm of the piece because every language has rhythm,” she says.
Recently awarded the Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama, the United States’ highest honour, the 83-year-old Angelou is the embodiment of a “phenomenal woman.”
The celebrated poet, novelist, educator, dramatist, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist – to name a few – will be speaking at The University of Western Ontario Nov. 3, presented by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities Students’ Council and the University Students’ Council.
Raised by her paternal grandmother from the age of 3 to 13, Angelou forged the foundation of her beliefs in her grandmother’s storefront in Stamps, Ark. While her brother, Bailey, was her closest confidant, she credits much of her confidence as a woman to her grandmother, whom she called ‘Momma.’
“Momma told me, ‘Sister, when you get, give, and when you learn, teach.’ She said that would take you all over the world. And I have found this to be so,” Angelou says on the phone from her home in North Carolina. “I give and I get. I get and I give. I learn and I teach. I teach and I learn all over the world. It at once gives a person confidence.”
She cautions against placing one’s confidence in superficial things, like money or beauty, because these are fleeting. Rather, confidence should come from a good heart, agile mind and the intent to give, as well as receive, she explains.
Her grandmother’s advice served her well in the racially segregated United States, as she followed her passion for music, dance, performance and poetry locally and abroad.
“It has allowed me to go into all sorts of communities where people have never seen a black person before and I feel at ease because I am a human being and no one can be more human than I,” she says. “They can be prettier and younger – almost everybody is – and even richer or finer, many things. But they cannot be any more human than I, than you.
“So when I am in the company of human beings, I am all right because I am going to do the best I can.”
Angelou shared her personal struggles and triumphs in the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, making her one of the first African-American women featured on the bestsellers list.
In spite of the struggles she has faced through her years, she refuses to be diminished by others and is encouraged to rise above them.
“I realize that people do what they know to do, not what they think they know; not even what you think they know,” she says. “If they knew better, they would do better.”
It is this kind of simple advice that has endeared Angelou to generations of readers and thinkers.
She has published verse, fiction and non-fiction, including more than 30 bestselling titles. Angelou has catapulted into a household name, largely thanks to a friendship with Oprah Winfrey.
But fame has not changed who she is.
“That is truly me,” she says of her writing voice. “I only know one me.
“I still have to write it. I still go to a room and sit down with my feet in UGGs and try to find ‘the word’ that will come close to conveying what I mean,” she says, laughing.
Angelou was asked to recite a poem during former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s inaugural address in 1993. Her reading of On the Pulse of the Morning was broadcast live around the world, making her one of the most recognized poetic voices across the globe.
Throughout her life Angelou has fought for equality and civil rights, and she continues to share a message of hope and equality.
“You know very well, until everybody is free and valued, nobody is ever really free. You see? I stand on the shoulders of giants; I sit on the laps of great women, great men,” she says.
“Some were not called that, but that’s all right. I know it because we’ve survived.”