A performer, poet, activist, memoirist and teacher, Maya Angelou has lived an extraordinary life. Now 85, she's published her 34th book: a deeply personal history of her relationship with her indomitable mother, Vivian Baxter, who encouraged her to live life with "pizzazz." In an intimate conversation, Angelou talks to Oprah about God, forgiveness, the healing powers of love—and the day Baxter handed her a gun and told her to go kill the man who'd abused her.
Like many of you, I first encountered Maya Angelou through her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
As I've said many times on the Oprah
show, I was captivated from the very first page, when an awkward young girl in a lavender taffeta dress stands up in church in Arkansas and forgets the lines of a poem she's reciting:
"What are you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay...I just come to tell you, it's Easter Day." Like Maya, I was a Negro girl—that's what we were called back then—being raised in the South by my grandmother, and like her, I loved to read. This was the first time I'd encountered anyone in a book whose life so closely resembled my own. I felt validated—like someone knew me. Maya would go on to write six more autobiographies, as well as countless poems and essays, and I've continued to feel that she has a unique gift for making her life resonate with the stories of all our lives.
When I first met Maya, in the '70s, I couldn't have guessed what the next few decades would bring—or that she would be there for me every step of the way, a wise, loving presence and the greatest mentor I've ever known. Over the years, she has taught me some of the most profound lessons of my life: that when we know better, we do better; that to love someone is to liberate, not possess, them; that negative words have the power to seep into the furniture and into our skin; that we should be grateful even for our trials. She calls me her darling girl, and I call her my mother-sister-friend. And as I soak up her wisdom and marvel at her stamina, I bask in the pure, contagious joy she takes in living.
Because this I know for sure: No one lives
like Maya. This is a woman who, in addition to her acclaimed books, has written screenplays and poems, befriended Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., worked for civil rights, acted on Broadway, been nominated for a Tony and a Pulitzer, and won three Grammys. To everything life has offered her, she has said yes—with soul and heart. In sharing with us her experiences and her glorious gift for language, she not only shows us ourselves; she makes us want to live our lives and love our lives. Maya recently visited me at Harpo Studios in Chicago to chat about her new memoir, Mom & Me & Mom
, a moving homage to the mother who helped make her the woman she is today. Of course, we also talked about our long friendship, and I managed to ask her how she's been able to age with such grace, gratitude and wit. I'm so proud to share her words with you.
Next: Read Oprah's full interview with Maya Angelou