For nearly 30 years, Tavis Smiley was able to call a woman who the world knew as an American icon, activist, and leading literary voice, simply “Mother Maya.” His friendship with Maya Angelou formed after a surprising invitation to accompany she and a group of friends to Africa, essentially to carry luggage. Tavis spoke with EBONY as he embarks on a book tour for his newly released book, My Journey With Maya, in which he shares life lessons, counsel and inspirations the late heroine lovingly imparted in him. Here he speaks on how Angelou made him a better journalist and how he felt when she told him to be easier on a certain politician.
EBONY: Essentially, this is not a book about Maya Angelou’s life, but more of a coming-of-age and self-discovery story on how Dr. Angelou shaped your life.
Tavis Smiley: I always point out this is the story of MY relationship with her. There are many people who admired and revered her from afar but never had the chance to know what she was like up close. I hope this book [will] take people inside her world and that you get a chance to see how generous, how charitable, how loving, how open, how warm, how witty, and how funny she was. I hope the book allows readers to access some of that.
EBONY: At 22, you were given the opportunity to accompany world-renown activist and legendary author, Maya Angelou, to Africa. How did that experience shape the rest of your life?
TS: What do you say about being a kid in your 20s and you have an opportunity to accompany Maya Angelou, to Africa, for 2 weeks. I went to carry her bags, however she did not allow that to prevent a friendship from forming.
When I ran for city council and lost I didn’t know what was next, I had no clue what to do next in my life, the trip to Africa with Maya Angelou; was the moment that allowed me to realize, I had so much to do and so much to live for. On that trip not only am I meeting Maya Angelou, I’m meeting Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba and the great historian, John H. Clarke, meeting all these iconic American and African figures in the diaspora.
Before I heard of Barack Obama, I’m meeting a black president named Jerry John Rawlings, President of Ghana, staying at the presidential palace. [The trip] affirmed that I had a role to play in my own life. This experience allowed me to come back and find my voice once I returned from Africa. That’s why the book started with that trip, because it was such a defining moment in my life and the start to my relationship with Maya Angelou.
EBONY: During the your trip, before the friendship formed, Maya said to you, “If from time to time I seem to be looking through your eyes, that’s only because I want to have as fresh a view as possible.” This phenomenal activist and intellectual took an interest in not only you, but expressed how she much she regarded the youth.
TS: She was interested in what I thought and what mattered to me. She is a world class intellectual, and I’m a teenager, [she’s] inviting me to disagree with her, challenge her, and to interrogate her. It’s not often the case that young black men are engaged in that way, people [having] a genuine curiosity about what you think, what you feel, what you believe and how you see the world. The confidence that it built in me, that Maya Angelou cared about what I thought, and she’s allowed me to articulate what I thought, that was confidence boost and builder like I’ve never had in my life. By the time I got back to America, I didn’t know what was next but I knew I had the confidence to pull it off.
EBONY: In 30 years of friendship what surprised you about Maya?
TS: Given what happened to Maya Angelou as a child, anyone that read, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings understands why Maya turned out as she did. What’s always been amazing for me is how after her experience she became better and didn’t become bitter.
So when I open the book in the introduction, with the beating I had as a child, when I met Maya I really had not come to terms with it. I had survived and I was in my 20s, but I really hadn’t come to terms yet with that moment in my life. I wasn’t raped but I was beaten severely enough to be in a hospital. Talking to her, [and] her wanting to hear about my experience, I said well my experience pales in comparison to yours. She said, “Don’t you ever say that don’t diminish your experiences in life.” She shut me down for diminishing my journey.
EBONY: Not only did Maya help transform your outlook on life, but her wisdom also had an impact in your broadcast career. In the book she tells you, “People don’t need your sympathy but they need your empathy.” How did that transform you as an interviewer?
TS: It has helped me to always put myself in the shoes of the person to whom I’m talking to. I want to be sensitive to their concerns, I want to make sure I’ve done my research and I know their story. It keeps you away from pitying people and always keeps you on the side of respecting people.
EBONY: Throughout your relationship, one of the lessons that Maya helped you with was the importance of not idolizing your heroes.
TS: She taught me early on that we are human [but] we are not human and divine. The divine may live inside of us but we are just cracked vessels. She said to me, “Tavis you must strive to be a good public servant but you will never be a perfect servant.” She said we’re just ordinary people who’ve been blessed to do extraordinary things. Maya wanted to protect me from reading and learning more and [then] crashing and burning because my heroes didn’t turn out to be the perfect person.
It was an important lesson early on about not making my heroes, idols but also about my own frailties. As I lived my life, I was going to make mistakes and missteps and [learned] that my journey wasn’t going to be without potholes either.
EBONY: During the 2008 presidential campaign you came under a lot of fire for your treatment of Barack Obama, which you defended as fulfilling your role as a broadcaster and holding all candidates responsible. Even Maya called you and told you to “Lay off the guy,” what was your reaction to that?
TS: I was shocked because I thought that more than most people she understood what my calling was and she helped me to develop my sense of purpose. So I was shocked when my phone rang and Maya was on the end trying to get me to back off Barack Obama.
I made my case that my job was not to attack him, my job was holding him accountable as I did with every other president. I had to remind her that I called her for advice in the past on how to handle Bill Clinton, in his first interview after the Monica Lewinsky scandal she gave it to me and I was nervous. She said you don’t want to be aggressive at all, you want to be assertive. So that was the advice she gave me for Bill Clinton and now I’m hearing something different in how she wants me to treat Barack Obama and many Black people felt the same way.
I can’t supplement my responsibility, my calling because people disagree with it. I would never say anything derogatory, demeaning, or derisive about the president, I never have.
I told her that I was going to continue doing what I felt I needed to do, which was to be true to my calling and try to raise difficult questions, raise issues that were not being oppressed. I did that for every other president and I’m not going to stop doing that because Barack Obama is there. There were moments when it was a little tense but at the end of the conversation, as always we ended on a love note.
EBONY: What was the most challenging aspect for you in writing the book?
TS: Maya spoke with a very distinct, powerful, and profound way so [we] tried to make sure that we were true to that. When you read this book I want you to hear her. So the good news is, because I spent so much time with her I knew what kind of words she used, the kind of cadences she spoke with, and when she’d break out into song, I knew her style. Thankfully, she has left us a treasure trove of her own written works so being able to consult her own writings made it easier for me to establish her voice authentically. More of her and, quite frankly, less of me.
EBONY: What do you miss most about Maya?
TS: I think in short it’s the access, not having access to her spirit, to her soul, to her wisdom. I have picked up the phone a number of times to call and realized that no one was there. There’s some people who always have the right thing to say, whatever you’re going through. She always had the right answer and that comes from her experiences and wisdom, which makes sense when [she is] the greatest renaissance woman this country has ever produced. I’m going to miss that. I miss it already.
Brittany Vickers is a writer who has two loves: books and brunch. Follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyReports.