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
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.
Maya: Well, he picked me up and drove me out to an area near San Francisco called Half Moon Bay. He asked me to get out of the car, and I did.
Oprah: You'd been dating him for a while.
Maya: Yes. And he was really wonderful, I thought. So I assumed we were in a romantic place out by the bay and so forth. And then he hit me with his fist.
Maya: He had been a prizefighter. So he hit me. Beat me. And I would go unconscious and then come to, and he would—he had a big plank, and he'd hit me again. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of his car. He drove to a restaurant called Betty Lou's Chicken Shack and called some men over. He said, "This is what you do to a B who is cheating on you." And the people looked, and they went and told Miss Betty Lou, "This man has your friend's daughter in the back of his car. We think she's dead." Well, Miss Betty Lou called my mother, who went to her pool hall and got two of the brawniest—
Oprah: She owned the pool hall, right?
Maya: She owned it. She got the baddest and most scarred-up people she could find. Then she found where the man lived, and she knocked on his door.
Oprah: How long had you been there?
Maya: Two or three days. He'd taken me back to his house. I couldn't even sit up—my ribs were broken. I couldn't call anyone. I had no breath. I prayed. Then suddenly I heard loud shouting in the hall, and my mother said, "Break this S.O.B. down. My baby's in there." And the two huge men broke down the door, and my mother walked in and saw me and fainted because I looked so—well, my teeth had gone through my lips.
Oprah: So she rescued you. That is what I love about this story.
Oprah: And she nursed you back to health. And then one day she handed you her .38—
Maya: And she said, "I want you to shoot him. I promise you won't do a day in jail. Kill him." She had friends who knew him and had put the word out on him. She told me where he was.
Oprah: I wouldn't mess with Vivian Baxter.
Maya: No. Never.
Oprah: The fact that she had a .38 to hand her daughter...
Maya: Please. Vivian Baxter had ammunition of every sort. Little bitty Italian pistols. And .45s and .38s. German Lugers. Everything.
Oprah: So tell me about the moment when she handed you the gun. Did you think for a minute that you would use it to kill him?
Maya: Well, I knew I wanted to follow her orders....
Oprah: Just like when you went down to the streetcar office.
Maya: But I also knew it was very unlikely that I would actually shoot. She told me to call him and tell him to meet me on the corner, and I did that, and I had the pistol in my hand. And when he came out, he said, "Oh, please, don't kill me, Maya. I love you. I'm sorry; I love you." And I couldn't. It's not my nature. My mother said, "Well, you must've gotten that from your grandmother, because you didn't get it from me. I'd shoot him down like a dog in the street."
Oprah: And she was not playing.
Maya: She was not playing.
Oprah: When your son, Guy, was only 2 months old, you moved out of your mother's house, and I love what she said to you as you were leaving. She said, "All right, you go, but when you cross my doorstep, you have already been raised. With what you have learned from your grandmother Henderson in Arkansas and what you have learned from me, you know the difference between right and wrong.... And then remember this: You can always come home."
Maya: She did. And whenever the world would throw me flat on my face with this little baby I was trying to raise while working, singing songs and dancing, I would go home to Vivian Baxter. She would act as if it was the best thing that had ever happened. She'd call her friends.
Oprah: And even when you were 16 and pregnant, she did not shame you.
Maya: Not at all. She said, "Do you know who the father is?" I said yes. She asked me, "Do you love him?" No. "Does he love you?" No. Then she said, "We're not gonna ruin three lives. We're gonna have a beautiful baby."
Maya: And she loved my son. She was a knockout, Vivian Baxter.
Oprah: You write in the book that she was not a good mother to young children.
Maya: No, she was terrible. She explained to me once that when I was 2 or 3 years old, I had asked her for something and slapped her on the leg—we were sitting on the porch—and she backhanded me right off the porch and into the dirt! I'm so glad she sent me away as a young person [to live with my grandmother]. But this woman was the greatest mother of young adults. She told me once when I was 22, "Baby, you know, I think you're the greatest woman I've ever met. Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt and my mother—you're in that category. Give me a kiss." I looked down on this woman that people called Lady, and she owned hotels and things, and people admired her and some were frightened of her. Rightly. And I thought, "Suppose she's right. Suppose I really am going to be somebody. Maybe I should stop drinking and smoking and cursing." Well, I did stop cursing, from that day forward—I still don't!
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.
Maya: I would encourage her to forgive. It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody. I mean, we ask the Creator to forgive our stupidest actions. The cruelest mean-hearted things.
Oprah: We say, God forgive me.
Maya: Yes. So then you forgive. It relieves you. You are relieved of carrying that burden of resentment. You really are lighter.
Oprah: I know you often say that love liberates us, but actually, forgiveness does.
Maya: But you can't forgive without loving. And I don't mean sentimentality. I don't mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, "I forgive. I'm finished with it."
Oprah: I've tried to let people know, as you have taught me over the years, that when you forgive somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean you want to invite them to your table.
Maya: Indeed not. No, no, no. I don't even want you around me. It just means I'm finished with you.
Maya: I had to get to a place where I could forgive the man who raped me when I was 7 years old. And that was a matter of incredible mental gymnastics. I had to think of what I had done to other people and how I'd been forgiven. Whatever I've done, I've been forgiven.
Maya: I won't—I don't—forget. And I will not put myself in a situation where that can be done to me again. But I understand.
Oprah: I have to say, over the years you've been my greatest teacher. Who have been your greatest teachers?
Maya: My grandmother Annie Henderson, who raised me from ages 3 to 13, and my mother. Vivian Baxter had this incredible anger whenever anybody tried to do her down—but this same woman was so kind. She never laughed at anybody, ever. If the person was fat or black or white or poor, she never laughed at them.
Oprah: Never made fun of them.
Maya: No, no. I liked that in her. Because she had everything—money, beauty, health. And she never laughed at anybody.
Oprah: And you didn't think of yourself as a pretty girl.
Maya: Oh, no. I wasn't a pretty girl. I was six feet tall at 15, you know.
Oprah: So how did you learn to love yourself at that time?
Maya: Well, my brother, Bailey, loved me. My grandmother loved me. And my mother loved me.
Oprah: You wrote in one of your poems that "nobody can make it out here alone."
Maya: Amen. Nobody but nobody makes it out here alone.
Oprah: Everybody needs somebody.
Maya: And that's how love heals. The love of the family, the love of one person can heal. It heals the scars left by a larger society. A massive, powerful society.
Oprah: Where do you go for solace, for comfort? Are there books that you read? When Maya Angelou needs comforting, where does she turn?
Maya: I'm a student of Unity, the Unity Church. I took a course on Unity about two years ago online. Not to become a member or a minister but just to understand more deeply. There's a book called Lessons in Truth [a core text of the Unity Ministry]. And in the book there is a line, which is "God loves me." Years ago, I read it to my then mentor, the late Frederick Wilkerson. And he said, "Read it again. Read it again. Read it again." And finally I said, "God loves me" [crying]. It still humbles me that this force that makes leaves and fleas and stars and rivers and you, loves me. Me, Maya Angelou. It's amazing. I can do anything. And do it well. Any good thing, I can do it. That's why I am who I am, yes, because God loves me and I'm amazed at it. I'm grateful for it.
Oprah: In Mom & Me & Mom, you write on the last page that Vivian Baxter deserved a daughter who had a good memory. I loved that you ended that way.
Maya: And that's what I deserve. And that's what I want you to be. Remember me. Yes. Yes?
Oprah: Yes. Thank you for this talk. I love you, and you know it.