In February of 2012, just after the relaunch of EBONY.com, I was given the opportunity to speak briefly with Maya Angelou about her PBS special, "Until There Is No Black History Month." Though it was a phone interview, it was a tremendous honor and a conversation I will not ever forget. Due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, the story didn't run in time and I've had her words sitting on my desktop like a treasured secret. In light of her passing, it seemed appropriate to print some of the gems she shared with me, including a sweet annecdote about her beloved Coretta Scott King and Oprah that is, literally, about gems.
Thank you, Maya. Rest well, for yours was a life so richly lived.
On overcoming prejudice and racism:
If we can develop enough courage to try to be intelligent and by that I don’t mean educated or intellectually astute, I mean really intelligent, where we can admit that human beings are more alike than we are unalike; If we can get to that place, then we wont have to have an Asian History Week or any of those times set aside for others. When that happens, all the history of the human being and all the history of the citizens in the United States will be taught from the same history books.
I know [prejudice] is ignorance, but it is also fear. People would rather have the ills they have than apply it to others they know not of. So if they had been prejudiced all along and they say, "Oh yeah, my people were always prejudiced, they didn’t like them. And my father hated them, and so I do." It is a fear of letting go of a condition— of an idea and it is really crippling. If you really think that you are inferior, then you are crippled. If you really think that someone else is inferior, then you assume that person to be crippled and you really are yourself. No human being can be more human than any other human being. You can be taller or shorter or bigger or thinner. You can be richer or poorer, but you can’t be any more human.
However, a number of people feel that they are the ones who are human and people who don’t look like them are not human. So we have to continue to have Black History Month until the history of the American citizen will be taught at one time, from the same book, in all classrooms.
On the difference between the world she grew up in and today:
I think we are better off than we were. If that was not so, you wouldn’t have men and women as CEOs at some of the principle corporations in this country or heads of universities in our country. We would not have a Black president in the White House. We are better off than we were. You would not be interviewing me and I would not be here to be interviewed. We just move slowly. Change does move very slowly. It appears that it is even slower than it is because our lives are so short. So we tend to think that nothing is happening but it is happening. It just took a long time for all of this ignorance to sink in.
On the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement (and who might lead us next):
There was a woman named Daisy Bates in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was a person who walked the Arkansas children, the Black children into the school. The governor said [ in regards to integrating Arkansas schools] "over his dead body." And President Eisenhower sent the troops to help her. She was one single Black woman who walked these children in the school with people spitting at her and throwing stones and very few people even know her name. She and her husband had a newspaper. He died and Daisy continued to hold the candle.
Harry Belafonte is a person well known, but he isn’t known for all the good he did. After Martin Luther King was killed, I was told, the next day, that he sent $60,000 down to Coretta Scott King. That was 1968. That is about $600,000 today. Mrs. Jackie Kennedy was left without her husband but she had money and she came from money, and the government gave her money. But there was Coretta with no money.
Let me just tell you a story, I never told this to anyone but it might be of some interest to you. A few years ago, Oprah was giving a class in Chicago at a university. She wanted Mrs. King to address the students. Mrs. King couldn’t come up but Oprah sent a truck down and she spoke into the camera and did it that way. So afterwards, Oprah sent Mrs. King a gift, and she called me and said "Girl, your daughter is so sweet, she sent me this pretty necklace and it’s so nice. It’s filled with rhinestones and I don’t know what this pink, red thing is but it’s beautiful." I said "I haven’t even heard the word rhinestone in 20 years. Wait a minute, let me speak to your assistant." I said, "Where is that necklace that Oprah just sent to her. She said "It’s in the bathroom." I said to get it and take it to the jeweler and have it appraised and when she called me back she said “Sister, these are diamonds and rubies. You realize that Martin was killed before he could ever afford to buy me anything like this?"
So the people, the women and men who kept Betty Shabazz alive like, Percy Sutton and Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee—those are the people who deserve as much accolades as anyone else. So our leaders are not always these expected men who stood out in history. Adam Clayton Powell, men and women in Harlem started movements. They walked up and down the streets on 125th Street in Harlem saying, “Don’t die where you can’t work,” and they put people out of business who weren’t allowing any Black salesmen.
Sometimes, we forget some of the power we possess. I think that some of the hip-hoppers are going to become known as the leaders—when they understand [that.]