Oprah: What were you thinking when the president placed that medal around your neck?
Maya: I thought of my grandma, who, when I stopped talking [after being raped at the age of 7], said to me, "Sister, Mama don't care that these people say you must be an idiot because you can't talk. Mama know when you and the good Lord get ready, you're gonna be a teacher." I also thought of all the Africans who were brought to this country longing for freedom, coming on a nightmare and wishing for a dream. I thought of the Jews. I thought of the Arabs. I thought of people coming from Ireland when the potato blight had absolutely wiped out their country. I thought of all those people at Ellis Island. Of all those people who got off the slave ships in Jamestown. And I was so overcome, Oprah. The truth is, if I had been asked to speak, I couldn't speak at that time. When I was taken out of that room, I broke down. I sobbed in gratitude.
Oprah: At the White House.
Maya: At the White House. Thank God. I thank God I'm myself and for the life I'm given to live and for friends and lovers and beloveds, and I thank God for knowing that all those people have already paid for me.
Oprah: That's one of my favorite lessons you taught me. Will you share that? What does it mean that we've already been paid for?
Maya: You've been paid for by people who never even saw your face. Your mother's mother, your father's father. And so it behooves you to prepare yourself so you can pay for someone else yet to come. Whose name you'll never know. You just keep the good thing going.
Oprah: You pave the way for other people.
Maya: Yes, ma'am.
Oprah: To, first of all, see themselves differently.
Maya: Yes, ma'am.
Oprah: You know, this month in the magazine, we're talking about aging brilliantly. What a wonderful mentor you have been for me on the subject of aging with grace and appreciation. When you appeared on Master Class, on OWN, a couple of years ago, you said, "Eighty-two is hot. Eighty-two is fabulous." And now as we sit here, you're 85. What do you have to say about the 80s now? Are they still hot?
Maya: Oh, my goodness. Do it if you can.
Oprah: Do it if you can.
Maya: I mean it. If you've been caring for yourself—and I don't mean going to the doctor every other day. I mean liking yourself and trying to be reasonable. You know, moderation in all things.
Maya: And even moderation in moderation. Don't get too much moderation, you know? [Laughs.]
Oprah: Moderation in moderation!
Maya: But when you get into your 80s and you find that you're still looking kind of all right and people still say hello [laughs], you think, "Hmm, I'm glad I got this far." Yes.
Oprah: So tell me, I see so many women around me in their 30s and 40s Botoxing themselves and just fighting the aging process all the way. Were you ever anxious about it? About turning 40, turning 50?
Maya: I can't remember ever being anxious about it, even when I was very young. At every age, I've been grateful. I talked to you years ago about how important that is. Get up in the morning. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this day. Thank you for the light coming through that window. Thank you for my breath. Thank you for the phone call that told me I have the job. Thank you even for the phone call that told me I'm not wanted anymore. Thank you, because I know you have something better for me lined up.
Oprah: Yes. In one of the seminal moments of my life, I was at that farm I had in Indiana—you remember the farm. And I was in the bathroom sitting on the toilet seat, trying to get some quiet, because there were people at the house, and I'd called you crying hysterically about something, I don't even remember what. But I was calling for your open, empathetic, loving embrace. And you said, "Stop it right now. I want you to say, 'Thank you.'" And I said, "What am I saying thank you for?" And you said, "Because you know God has put a rainbow in the clouds for you." That was life-changing for me.
Maya: Yes, darling.
Oprah: So when whatever it is hits—
Maya: Thank you.
Oprah: Thank you.
Maya: Because I know something better is on the road for me.
Next: The advice she would give her younger self