Oprah Talks to Maya Angelou
Maya: I am so pleased to be here, honey.
Oprah: Well, it's a great honor to have you here. We've known each other for so long now, I actually feel like your daughter.
Maya: You are my daughter.
Oprah: I am your daughter. And you are my mother, my sister and my friend, from the very first day we met.
Maya: I am all that.
Oprah: You know, when I first approached you so many years ago and asked if I could interview you...I just think how great God is. Because in that moment, I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to take the risk of being turned down. I think I was in my early 20s.
Maya: If that. I was speaking at a university, and when you came up to me and said, "Dr. Angelou," I said, "No, I'm afraid I can't, but I thank you." And you said, "If you'll just give me five minutes...." So I said all right, because of your persistence. And you had good questions. You listened to my answers. And then you said, "Thank you so much." I looked at my watch, and it had been exactly five minutes.
Oprah: [Laughs.] Yes. In my memory, you said, "Who are you, girl?"
Maya: That's right.
Oprah: And that's when the bond began. One thing is for sure. You have, over the years, continuously surprised me. I discover new things about you all the time. Many readers who know you as an author and poet may not be aware that you were once a well-known calypso singer and dancer! In Mom & Me & Mom, you write that your mother's love encouraged you to live your life with "pizzazz." Would you say you've lived a life filled with pizzazz?
Maya: Yes, I have. When I look at an old photo or a clip from my calypso days, I think it's amazing what I have done. And I know it's not my doing, so I don't have to be modest about it. Modesty is a learned affectation. It's no good. Humility is great, because humility says, "There was someone before me. I'm following in somebody's footsteps."
Oprah: And that's why you don't tolerate false modesty.
Maya: I know that I've been guided by God. I am obedient.
Oprah: You have such a long list of achievements. But one that comes up in your new book is that you were the first black streetcar conductor in the city of San Francisco.
Maya: I was 16. And I had the nerve to want—well, I'd seen women on the streetcars with their little change belts, and their caps with bills and their formfitting jackets...
Oprah: You liked the uniform.
Maya: I loved the uniform! So I said, "That's a job I want."
Oprah: But they'd never hired a black person.
Maya: Well, until the newspaper wrote that I was the first black person. Then another conductor went down to the office and said that he was also black but had been passing for white for 20 years! So they fired him for lying on his initial application.
Oprah: Oh, my goodness. So did you see this as the accomplishment it was at the time?
Maya: No, but my mother did. When I first went down to place an application, they wouldn't give me one. They wouldn't even allow me to apply. When I told my mother, she asked, "Why? Do you know why?" And I said, "Yes, because I'm a Negro." And she said, "But do you want the job?" I said yes. And she said, "Go get it." She told me to go down to the office every day before the secretaries got there and wait [for an application]. She said, "You sit there and read one of your thick Russian books"—I was reading Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy at the time. I did, and the secretaries laughed at me. They pushed out their lips and said some negative racial things, but I sat there.
Oprah: At 16.
Maya: Yes, but here's the thing. I sat there because I was afraid to go home!
Maya: I was afraid to tell my mother that I wasn't as strong as she thought I was. So I sat there for two weeks. Finally a man came out of his office and said, "Come in." He asked me why I wanted the job. I said, "I like the uniforms and I like people." And I got the job.
Oprah: What's amazing about this story is that your mother, knowing you were a 16-year-old on a streetcar, followed you—
Maya: At about 4 in the morning, she'd wake me up with a bath already drawn. She'd drive me out to the beach, where I'd meet the streetcar. And she'd follow it right through San Francisco until daybreak with her pistol on the passenger seat.
Oprah: That's a mother.
Maya: She was a mother.
Oprah: So as we list all your achievements, the first black streetcar conductor—I'll give that to you, and not the man who passed for white—recipient of 70 honorary degrees, author of more than 30 books, is there anything you wanted to have on that list but didn't get a chance to do?
Maya: Well, one of the things I wanted was to have a daughter. I have a son, who is my heart. A wonderful young man, daring and loving and strong and kind. I wanted a daughter. So I've taken people's daughters. I have certainly taken you. I took my daughter-in-law. Because I know I'm a good mother.
Oprah: Do you know what your greatest gift to me is?
Oprah: It's that every one of us who considers ourselves to be your daughter or your son—we all think we're the most special. So when I'm sitting with someone else who says, "Oh, Auntie Maya," and they're acting like they're the favorite, I'm like—"Excuse you!" I remember when Gayle's mother passed and I spoke at her funeral, each of the sisters said, "We thought we were her favorite." That's the gift that a mother can give, to make everyone feel like they are the special one.
Maya: And you know you really are.