Oprah and Maya Angelou

Editor's note: We were deeply saddened to learn of Dr. Maya Angelou's passing. The following is from her December 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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.

Oprah: The big question I have for you is this: Where did your confidence come from? I've never seen anybody who exudes more confidence than you, and I don't mean false, modest bravado, but from the inside out, you've got the stuff.

Maya: There are so many gifts, so many blessings, so many sources that I can't say any one thing—unless that one thing is love. By love I don't mean indulgence. I do not mean sentimentality. And in this instance, I don't even mean romance. I mean that condition that allowed humans to dream of God. To make it. To imagine golden roads. That condition that allowed the "dumb" to write spirituals and Russian songs and Irish lilts. That is love, and it's so much larger than anything I can conceive. It may be the element that keeps the stars in the firmament. And that love, and its many ways of coming into my life, has given me a great deal of confidence about life.

Oprah: So when you walk into a room and heads turn, it's not just confidence in yourself that we see?

Maya: Oh, no. That's why, though I was never pretty, I did command something—because of my reliance on life.

Oprah: When we see you, we're seeing all of your history.

Maya: That's right—all of my history as an African-American woman, as a Jewish woman, as a Muslim woman. I'm bringing everything I ever knew [and all the stories I've read]—everything good, strong, kind and powerful. I bring it all with me into every situation, and I will not allow my life to be minimized by anybody's racism or sexism or ageism. I will not. So I will take the Scandinavian story of the little princess, I will take the story of Heidi in the Alpine mountains, I will take the story of O-Lan in Pearl S. Buck's book The Good Earth, I will take them all. I take them, and I know them, and I am them. So when I walk into a room, people know that somebody has come in—they just don't know it's 2,000 people!

Oprah: How do you remain connected to those who came before you?

Maya: I have the blessing of seeing our connection and the courage to admit what I see. Timidity makes a person modest. It makes him or her say, "I'm not worthy of being written up in the record of deeds in heaven or on earth." Timidity keeps people from their good. They are afraid to say, "Yes, I deserve it."

Oprah: I know you don't believe in modesty.

Maya: I hate it. It makes me wary. Modesty is a learned affectation. And as soon as life slams the modest person against the wall, that modesty drops.

Oprah: So when you hear someone being modest....

Maya: I run like hell. The minute you say to a singer, "Would you sing?" and they say, "Oh, no. I can't sing here," I say, "Oops! I wonder, where is that train to Bangkok?"

Oprah: Because?

Maya: Because that person is not reliable. She may not know it, but modesty speaks volumes about falseness.

Oprah: You see where you fit in life.

Maya: Yes. And I know that whatever I have is a gift. I accept that, and I'm grateful to those who went before me so that I can do what I'm supposed to do for those who are yet to come. That's humility.

Oprah: How is it that you came to be this wise? Because you would say you're wise, wouldn't you?

Maya: Well, I'm en route. I am certainly on the road.

Oprah: Is it because you've paid such close attention in your life?

Maya: I do pay attention. I love wisdom. And you can never be great at anything unless you love it. Not be in love with it, but love the thing, admire the thing. And it seems that if you love the thing, and you don't just want to possess it, it will find you. But if you're in love with the thing, it may run like hell away from you.

Oprah: But if you love it, it looks for you as you look for it.

Maya: That's right.

Oprah: Just listening to you now, I'm thinking, "What is it about Maya?" I think it's that you know yourself.

Maya: Uh—huh.

Oprah: You know that you are supported by something bigger than yourself. That you are loved. That you have the right to stand up for yourself. And that comes from knowing who you are.

Maya: And I not only have the right to stand up for myself, but I have the responsibility. I can't ask somebody else to stand up for me if I won't stand up for myself. And once you stand up for yourself, you'd be surprised that people say, "Can I be of help?"

Oprah: That is true. I love your intolerance of whining. I've never forgotten what you told me: "Whining is just unbecoming."

Maya: It lets the brute know there's a victim for him in the neighborhood!

Oprah: As you know, my daily quest for the show and this magazine is to help women see who they are. Women tell me over and over, "I feel like I've lost myself. I don't know who I am." How is it that you know who you are? And have you always known since the first words in Caged Bird?

Maya: When I was 19 or 20, a wonderful thing happened to me—terrifying but wonderful. When I was younger, I thought my grandmother was probably God and she just wouldn't tell anybody! She was so strong and kind. And when my grandmother died, I realized that even if I had millions of dollars, I couldn't find her anywhere on earth. And my next thought was that I would die. Oprah, I used to go into my house, see that my son was asleep, and after turning all the locks on the door, I would put a chair under the doorknob. I didn't realize that I was trying to keep death out. Then I began having trouble breathing. I didn't have asthma, but my breathing was labored. Finally, I had to come to grips with what was the matter with me. I looked at my life and thought, "I'm afraid to die." And I concluded that whether I was afraid or not, I would die. I don't think I've ever talked to you about this.

Oprah: No.

Maya: It was one of the most important crossroads in my life, because once I realized that no matter what, I would do this thing, the next step was to think, "If I am going to do the most difficult and frightening thing—dying—is it possible that I could do some difficult and maybe seemingly impossible things that are good?"

Oprah: Was this a conscious thought?

Maya: Yes. I thought, "Just suppose I could choreograph a ballet." And I did it. Suppose I could teach dance at the theater in Cleveland. And I did it. Suppose I could sing for a living—that I could stop these two jobs as a waitress and a salesperson.

Oprah: Had you thought about doing that before but didn't have the courage?

Maya: It had never occurred to me. I'm going to die. So why can't I do everything? And what is this idea that I worked all day yesterday, so I'm tired today? I've never believed that.

Oprah: That is why everyone marvels at your stamina—your ability to continue to be out there speaking, teaching and giving, giving, giving. We think, "How does she do it? I need a nap!"

Maya: I think a nap or a rest overnight is great. But who needs three days of rest? Please! The second day, you might die.

Oprah: So I think I've got this: You realized you would die—and not just intellectually, because we all know it intellectually.

Maya: Yes, ma'am.

Oprah: I think many people live in complete denial of the fact that they are going to die. They pretend it's not going to happen. That's why some people won't even go to the doctor.

Maya: Yes. Some think, "If I marry this guy who's two inches taller than I am and who has a nice bank account, I won't die. If I buy six cars, I won't die. If I hate Jews, I won't die. If I hate homosexuals, I won't die." They think they will increase their life by shunting misery onto somebody else, but it's just the opposite.

Oprah: Is there nothing that frightens you? You never seem to be unsure about anything. Were you always that way?

Maya: You'd be surprised what coming to grips with the fact that you will die does for you.

Oprah: Earlier you were telling me that your life is defined by principles. And one principle you have taught me is that we can't allow ourselves to be "pecked to death by ducks."

Maya: That's true. Some people don't have the nerve to just reach up and grab your throat, so they just take....

Oprah: Little pieces of you—with their rude comments.

Maya: That's right.

Oprah: They try to demean you.

Maya: Reduce your humanity through what Jules Feiffer called little murders. The minute I hear [someone trying to demean me], I know that that person means to have my life. And I will not give it to them.

Oprah: It's an assassination attempt by a coward.

Maya: Yes. Some people don't have the courage to just walk up to you and pull the trigger. If somebody just walked up and said "Boom!"—well, there you go. Bye. But when a person commits these little murders, and then you catch him or her at it, he or she might say, "Oh, I didn't mean it." But make no mistake: It is an assassination attempt.

Oprah: What about when a person makes a mistake and says, "I need a second chance?" Do you give them a second chance?

Maya: Well, I have to say yes.

Oprah: But when people show you who they are, believe them!

Maya: Now mind you, some men have told me, "Maya, you always take it to the max." But if someone tells me, "Oh, I like your slacks," and the man I'm with says, "I don't. I wish she wouldn't have worn them," I say, "Oh, my dear—here are your keys."

Oprah: Because you see rudeness as a little murder.

Maya: Yes.

Oprah: And you also don't allow anybody to say anything negative about anybody while in your home.

Maya: That's right.

Oprah: I've seen you put people out of your house for telling a racist joke! And you are not the least bit embarrassed about disrupting the whole room.

Maya: I believe that a negative statement is poison. The air between you and me is filled with sounds and images. If that were not so, how is it that I can turn on a television right now and see what's happening in New York? That means sounds and images are in the air, crowded, jammed up like bats. And Oprah, I'm convinced that the negative has power. It lives. And if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over. So when the rude or cruel thing is said—the lambasting, the gay bashing, the hate—I say, "Take it all out of my house!" Those negative words climb into the woodwork and into the furniture, and the next thing you know they'll be on my skin.

Oprah: The same is true with the positive spirit.

Maya: I believe so.

Oprah: You can allow goodness to come in, and you can claim it.

Maya: You can ask it in, show it how much you like it, make room for it. And it says, "Oh, I like this place, I think I'll stay here." Which is why people go into one house and say, "I want to take my shoes off." At another house, no matter how beautiful it is, they might say, "Hmm, I can't stay."

Oprah: All of your principles stem from knowing who you are, because when you know who you are, you can say to people, "That will not happen in my home."

Maya: That's right—and if I'm in someone else's home, I will leave. And I'm really not sorry. I just say, "You'll have to excuse me, please, but something is opening up for me on the Burma Road."

Oprah: What are the other principles that define your life?

Maya: I love a statement by the apostle Paul, in the Book of Philippians in the Bible. I think the Corinthians had been writing to Paul, telling him that old men were chasing young women, nobody was tithing—and all that must have run Paul crazy. He wrote back and said, "If there be anything of good report, speak of these things." That's one of my principles. I know it sounds the same [as the one I just mentioned], but it's separate. It's another discipline that I encourage myself to employ—to, as much as possible, say the courteous thing, and then be it.

Oprah: I'm sure that throughout your life, some have said of you, "Who does she think she is?" How do you respond?

Maya: Among other things, "I'm a child of God." That's amazing. And "I'm not only a child of God, but God loves me."

Oprah: The wonder of that.

Maya: It still knocks my socks off!

Oprah: Doesn't knowing that give you freedom?

Maya: Freedom and discipline. Freedom and responsibility. Freedom and a path. Freedom and a row to hoe. Freedom to do something, not freedom to be idle. And the hardest part for me is to realize that while God loves me, and I am a child of God, I have to see the bigot and the brute and the rapist, and whether he or she knows it or not, I have to know that that person is a child of God. That is part of the responsibility—and it's hard.

Oprah: Do you find many things hard now?

Maya: Writing. It has always been hard, even after 20 or so books.

Oprah: I just read that Caged Bird is on the American Library Association's list of the ten books most often requested for banning.

Maya: Yes. But many of the people who want it banned have never read a page of my book.

Oprah: Why do they want it banned—because of the rape?

Maya: Because of the rape. And yet I just read someplace that after a woman had read Caged Bird, she realized she wasn't alone. I think in some cases Caged Bird has saved some lives—not just the quality of life, which is very important, but life itself. I get letters from young women and men, and I am able to say to them, "You can survive rape. You never forget it—don't even think that. But you can survive it and go on."

Oprah: You've shown that you can live on—and with grace. That's the other quality that you and I appreciate in people: the ability to live with, and accept, grace. Because grace seems to always be available.

Maya: It's like a lake of drinkable water right outside your door. But you stay inside and die of thirst.

Oprah: My favorite Maya teaching is, "When people show you who they are, believe them."

Maya: Yes—and believe them the first time!

Oprah: You've told me a lot of things, but that's the one principle that really resonates. If you can just get that, you can do okay.

Maya: You can save yourself a lot of anger. And I will tell you another principle: Being thankful helps you to be present.

Oprah: And humble.

Maya: Yes. People commit errors because they are not present. A few weeks ago, I was down in Atlanta, and my great—granddaughter was running around. I was cutting some onions, and I cut off the end of my thumb! I wasn't present. I was over there, with my great—granddaughter. You see? I'm a cook—I know what knife and flesh do together. But I wasn't present. I would encourage women and men to be present—you'll avoid falling into certain pits. For instance, if you know that a person has just lost his wife or her husband or lover, it's unlikely that you will say something that will hurt that person's feelings [if you're truly paying attention]. You'll make a sweeter life for yourself and for those around you if you are present.

Oprah: In the moment.

Maya: Yes, ma'am. Very important.

Oprah: Part of the reason I'm doing this interview is that you have been one of the greatest gifts and the biggest influence in my life.

Maya: I'm so for grateful that.

Oprah: I remember one time you were overseas, eight hours ahead of us here, and you were in the middle of a speech onstage. I was like, "Get the phone to Maya now!"

Maya: That's true.

Oprah: And when you got to the phone, you said, "Baby? What is it, baby?" Not "You've just interrupted me, I was in the middle of speaking," but "What is it, baby?" When I heard that, I went, "Aaaaagh! I need your heeeelp!" Who was able to be that kind of loving person for you?

Maya: My mother, Vivian Baxter. There are great parents of small children—they keep their little hair in bows—but those parents are not always good parents of young adults. As soon as their children get up to some size, it's "Shut up, sit down, you talk too much, keep your distance, I'll send you to Europe!" My mom was a terrible parent of small children but a great parent of young adults. She'd talk to me as if I had some sense.

Oprah: I always thought that I would be that way. I don't know what to do with babies.

Maya: Yes. When I was 16, I told my stepdad that I was pregnant, and he asked me how far along I was. "I have three weeks," I said. He thought I said I was three weeks pregnant, so he phoned my mom up in Alaska [to tell her]. When she came down, she looked at me and said, "You're more than any three weeks pregnant." I said, "No, I'm going to have the baby in three weeks." She said, "Draw me a bath, please." And I drew a bath. She got in the bathtub and said, "Come in—and bring the cigarettes." It was the first time I had seen her naked. "Would you like a cigarette?" she asked me. "Yes," I said. "Then have it." And she sat back in her bath.

Oprah: This was your mother's reaction to your pregnancy?

Maya: Exactly. She said, "Do you love the boy?" I said no. She said, "Does he love you?" I said no. She said, "Then there's no reason to ruin three lives! We're going to have a baby." That's Vivian Baxter. From then on, she was just incredible as a parent.

Oprah: And this was in the fifties?

Maya: The forties. She taught me so much. And then, because I had two jobs and my son, and I was living in a room with cooking privileges, my mom would invite me over once a month so she could cook these fantastic meals for me—I wouldn't take any money from anybody. And once, we walked down to the pickle factory at the foot of the hill, where the air was redolent with mustard and vinegar—"Baby, you know something?" my mother said to me. "I think you're the greatest woman I've ever met—and I'm not including my mother or Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in that."

Oprah: How old were you?

Maya: Maybe 23. This was all during my birthing period. And Mom had on silver fox furs arched up over her back. She had on big diamond earrings and lots of lipstick. She said, "You are very intelligent and you're very kind, and those two qualities do not often go together. Give me a kiss." And I kissed her. Then she went across the street and got in her car, and I went the other way down to the streetcar. When I got on, I went to the very back and sat there. I thought, "Suppose she's right. She's intelligent—and she's too mean to lie." You see, a parent has the chance—and maybe the responsibility—to liberate her child. And my mom had liberated me when I was 17. When I moved out, she had said, "All right, you've been raised, so don't let anybody else raise you. You know the difference between right and wrong. Do right. And remember—you can always come home." And she continued to liberate me until she died.

Maya (continued): On the night she died, Oprah, I went to the hospital. Her breathing was labored, but she was still holding on. She would squeeze my hand. And I had hired somebody to just sit there with her and hold her hand. So I went in and said to her, "You know, I'm told that some people need permission to leave. Let me tell you about yourself. You were a great worker. You're a great cook. And you must have been a great lover because a lot of men—and if my memory serves me right, some women—risked their lives to love you." When I said that, the woman who was holding my mom's hand dropped it. I said, "Pick her hand up! I'm not asking you to judge her." So I told my mom, "Let me tell you about yourself. You deserved a great daughter, and you got one. And you liberated me to be one. So if it's time for you to go, you may have done everything God brought you here to do."

Oprah: I once heard you say, "If you want to liberate someone, love them."

Maya: That's it. Not be in love with them—that's dangerous. If you're in love with your children, you're in their lives all the time. Leave them alone! Let them grow and make some mistakes. Tell them, "You can come home. My arms are here—and my mouth is too." Tell them, "I'm going to leave you alone. You want to listen to rock and rap? Well, I think it's stupid, but help yourself." When you really love them, you don't want to possess them. You don't say, "I love you and I want you here with me." Naturally, if you love somebody, you do want to see their face every now and again, but that's not a condition of your love. People often get possession mixed up with love, and they say, "If you really loved me, you would call me." How—when life is going on? I think of you all the time, and the thought of you always lifts my spirits. But I'm not right at the phone!

Oprah: Have you been able to manage that kind of love even in romance?

Maya: It's hard, but I do it—and I don't know how. When I love somebody, I like him to be around; I like him to take me out to dinner; I like to look at the sunset with him. But if not, I love him and I hope he's looking at the same sun I am. Loving someone liberates the lover as well as the beloved. And that kind of love comes with age. Some of this wisdom came to me after I was 50 or 60.

Oprah: What's the best age?

Maya: Seventy—two! The seventies are hot.

Oprah: I'm glad you said that! I'm thinking the forties are it.

Maya: Wait till you hit the fifties!

Oprah: What's so great about the fifties?

Maya: A number of things happen. One, you are hopefully secure in what you want to do—which means that you don't spend a lot of time chewing on your knuckles about your reason for being here.

Oprah: Because you ought to know?

Maya: Yes, and you're settling into it in your fifties. Also, you're at your most beautiful. No woman is ever more beautiful than she is at 50.

Oprah: Really?

Maya: Do you know how beautiful you are? And can you see yourself ten years ago? You're ten times more beautiful now.

Oprah: I know there's a time where you really come into yourself.

Maya: Yes. In the fifties, you have your beauty as a treat. I thought that until I hit the sixties. What do you say, Jay! In your sixties, life decides to reward you with certain kinds of profound appreciation, so that people name their children and schools and libraries after you! And you still have your sexuality and your sensuality.

Oprah: You still do.

Maya: If you want your sexuality, you still have it. I'm sorry to say that when some people get to age 50, they say, "Well, that's the end, I'll never have to do that again." They lay down first and get up last! But in your sixties, everything is sweeter. You have more time.

Oprah: Really?

Maya: Oh, yes.

Oprah: Do you have any regrets?

Maya: Not a lot. I wish I'd been kinder and funnier, wiser and more generous.

Oprah: Forget that. People flock to your home because of your generosity. Generosity must be a life principle for you.

Maya: Absolutely. I learned it by experience. Again, when I was in my twenties, I was so poor. My son was 4, and we would go to Unity Church, which I am still a part of. If I had seven dollars, I would give a little more of it to the church than I could afford. Then we'd walk from the church back to Safeway.

Oprah: You remember the days of having only seven dollars?

Maya: Absolutely. And no bank account. I'd go to the grocery store with my son and buy two minute steaks with a lot of gristle. I wouldn't eat my steak, and Guy would say, "Ma, you'd better have some of your steak." I'd say, "No, you have that. I had something earlier." And he would inhale it. By nightfall, someone would phone and say, "Listen, I just stopped by the supermarket and I'm on my way past your house, and there was a sale on hamburger meat, so I picked some up for you and I'll drop it off." All my life it has been that way.

If you have a napkin, you need another napkin to receive back all the blessings you'll get. And you keep giving. Then you need a towel to receive all the gifts. And you continue giving. Finally, you need a tablecloth. And you continue giving—not stupidly, but you give. And when you give, you finally have to move out and get a second house, and a third house and a fourth.

Oprah: So you learned to give because of what was given to you.

Maya: Yes, because so much was given to me. It's amazing. It is a no—fail, incontrovertible reality: If you get, give. If you learn, teach. You can't do anything with that except do it.

Oprah: That is it! Thank you, Miss Maya.

Maya: Thank you, Miss Oprah.


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