The woman Oprah calls mentor-mother-sister-friend offers wise words about the roots of confidence, the trouble with modesty and how to do the impossible.
Since the moment I opened I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , I've felt deeply connected to Maya Angelou. With each page, her life seemed to mirror mine: In her early years she was raised by her grandmother in the South; as a young girl she was raped; and, like me, she grew up reciting what the church folks called little pieces—a few lines from the Bible that were usually delivered amid shouts and amens from the women fanning themselves in the front pews. Meeting Maya on those pages was like meeting myself in full. For the first time, as a young black girl, my experience was validated.
And it still is, only now I sit at Maya's feet, beside her fireplace, hardly believing that, years after reading Caged Bird , she is my mentor and close friend. When we met in Baltimore more than 20 years ago, our bond was immediate. We talked as if we had known each other our entire lives; and throughout my twenties and in the years beyond, Maya brought clarity to my life lessons. Now we have what I call a mother-sister-friend relationship. She's the woman who can share my triumphs, chide me with hard truth and soothe me with words of comfort when I call her in my deepest pain.
She speaks of what she knows. Born in St. Louis in 1928, Maya moved to rural Stamps, Arkansas, to be with her grandmother after her parents split. When she went back to St. Louis in the mid-1930s, her mother's boyfriend stole her virginity. In the aftermath of that trauma, 8-year-old Maya became mute and rarely opened her mouth to speak for several years. At 17 she had her only child, Guy. A few years later, when her grandmother died, the grief sent her reeling. It was then that she gave herself what one might call a Maya manifest: She would live—fully.
So she did. She became a celebrated calypso singer and dancer in a San Francisco cabaret. In the late 1950s she moved to New York and took part in the Harlem Writers Guild and befriended literary greats such as James Baldwin, who later encouraged her to tell her story in Caged Bird . In the years that followed, her renewed zeal for life would take her and Guy to many countries throughout the world. In 1961 she moved to Cairo, where she worked at the Arab Observer , and a few years later she went to Ghana to teach at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama. As a result of her travels, she became fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and Fanti, a West African language.
Today Maya is a kind of quintessential Everywoman: essayist, entertainer, activist, poet, professor, film director and mother-and she recently guest conducted the Boston Pops simply because she felt like it. She has written more than 20 books, and she once had three titles— Caged Bird , The Heart of a Woman and Even the Stars Looked Lonesome —on The New York Times best-seller list simultaneously for six consecutive weeks. In 1993 she became the first poet since Robert Frost in 1961 to write and recite a poem at a presidential inaugural ceremony—a performance for which she won a Grammy for Best Non-Musical Album. She is a Tony-nominated actress who has appeared in such productions as Look Away (1973) and Roots , a 1977 miniseries; and she made her feature-film directing debut with the 1998 Showtime movie Down in the Delta . All that, and she cooks like a champion: She prepares the kind of food that makes you want to take a bite and tell about it.
At Maya's home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we greet each other with hugs, grins and our favorite exchange: "Hey, you girl!" At 72 Maya exudes confidence and extraordinary intelligence—and her wit is as acute as her wisdom.
I remind her of the time a few years ago when someone in her home told a derogatory joke and she doled out what I call a skinning—the sharp words of correction she will give anyone who demeans her or others while in her presence. Yet all of Maya's friends know that beneath such chastisement is a layer of kindness and generosity you don't often find in people in these times. It is here, in Maya's home, that I feel as comfortable as I do in my own—at the table where we always flop down and catch up, in the sculpture garden in her backyard, in the kitchen where the sweet smell of pumpkin soup wafts through the air. When I am with Maya, unimportant matters melt away—her presence feels like a warm bath after an exhausting day. In our hours together, we can set aside all pretensions and just be: two women barefoot in a living room, sharing the most intimate parts of our lives.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Maya Angelou
Note: This interview appeared in the December 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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