In this Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Angelou, author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” has died, Wake Forest University said Wednesday, May 28, 2014. She was 86. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
Dr. Maya Angelou spoke in Portland at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall Oct. 30, 2012. She talked to The Skanner News before her visit. Here is our story and interview.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1928, Maya Angelou has traveled widely and earned renown as an author, poet, dancer, actor, producer and civil rights activist. She has counted among her friends many of the most influential people of the 20th Century and beyond, including with Malcolm X, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and James Baldwin. It was Baldwin who encouraged her to write her autobiography.
The first volume, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was published in 1970 to enormous acclaim. That work, and her 30 subsequent biographies, poetry and novels, have inspired readers the world over.
Dr. Angelou's awards and honors include three Grammys, a Pulitzer, 30 honorary degrees – including one from Portland State University— the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Bill Clinton asked her to compose and recite a poem for his 1993 inauguration. She responded with the poem that became a bestseller, “On the Pulse of The Morning.”
In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Skanner News: Dr. Angelou, I came to see you speak many years ago at the University of Portland. Have you visited Portland often?
Maya Angelou: Oh many, many times. It is one of my favorite cities, Portland – it's very beautiful. I am happy to come. I used to have friends in Portland, who I'm sorry to say have passed on. But I have friends in other parts of Oregon and I'm sure they will come to Portland. There is a wonderful painter and artist. Her name is Lynda Lanker and she has a new book out on sheroes— “Tough by Nature.” It's a wonderful book. You'd really like it.
And then, there is a great philosopher living in Oregon: Gary Zukav, who was just on Oprah's program. He is one of those great minds, and he is a friend of Oprah's and a friend of mine. He is the author of “The Seat of the Soul,” and his new book is “Spiritual Partnership: The Journey to Authentic Power.” He is brilliant, really brilliant and I don't use that word casually.
There is an area in Portland named for me. It is an apartment building called the Maya Angelou. I have been to visit before, and when I am in Portland I will go and see the Maya Angelou. I'd like to meet the people and have some chat with them.
TSN: You started off by supporting Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the last presidential election. So what do you think about President Obama now?
MA: I think he has done much better than he gets credit for. But I also think President Obama did not expect the opposition he encountered. Let me tell you first about Secretary Clinton. When she first moved to Arkansas, I think a number of people expected that, this cute little blonde coming down there as the wife of the governor, that she would have governor's teas on the lawn, or something. Instead, she became very interested in the conditions in prisons and she tried to improve those conditions. And she worked for healthcare. I was very impressed.
Later when she came to Washington as the First Lady, I thought, “Now I will really see what she is made of.” And when she got there, I think she set the journalists' backs up. Because she said, “If you're expecting someone to come here and talk about making chocolate chip cookies, you don't want me.”
I saw her and I said: “If you ever run for anything, I've got your back. So I did support her when she ran for the Democratic nomination. Then when she stepped down, I went over to the Obama camp and said, “Well if I can be of any use…” And I supported him for the rest of the campaign.
PHOTO: Maya Angelou smiles at an event in Washington. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
TSN: And you think the president has not been given the credit he deserves?
MA: Yes, very much so. I am sorry to say – and I know this will make a lot of people angry, and so forth –but the truth is: I see a lot of racism in the campaign. It's unfortunate, because as soon as he was voted in there were people who dug their heels in the ground and said: “I will not support him no matter how good his plan. No matter how good his intentions are: I will not support him.”
And you know, when the automobile industry was about to keel over, he worked to get money for the automobile industry, and he was opposed on every end. But he persevered, and was able to help the automobile industry to right itself. Now it's up and running. People have returned to their jobs, and new jobs have been created. Nobody mentions that, or a few of the other things he's done: such as healthcare, and the way elderly people are now being treated with more care, more concern.
TSN: Switching gears, Oregon's (then) schools chief Rudy Crew came to The Skanner's offices last week. And one of his urgent concerns was to step up reading at the earliest ages. I know that's something close to your heart. What would you say to parents about reading?
MA: I think if parents and family friends would read to the children, make it a habit to read to them, before they even learn to read for themselves. For one thing, it would enhance their sense of self, their feeling that they are worthy --if adults really took time, even an hour in the evening.
If adults chose two days a week, so that you can say, “On Wednesday and Friday, I'm going to read from a new book, or read something that you want me to read. I'll read some poetry to you. Or I'll read a short story. Or I'll tell you a story.”
It's so important for children to see adults reading. But very often, the adults don't even take a newspaper. So the children don't see their parents and relatives reading. So they must conclude that reading is not that important. And then they go to school and teachers ask them to read. And they want to know why.
TSN: I know you practice what you preach and you read to children in the library.
MA: Yes, there are a number of libraries named for me. And when I'm in state where there is a library named for me, I will ask them to have the children come in, and I will read to them. They enjoy it and I enjoy it –especially the small ones. They sit on the floor with their little mouths open like sparrows, just waiting for something to drop in.
TSN: You have so much life experience to draw on. I wonder, what does living the good life mean to you?
MA: It means giving of your resources and energy, and really accepting, “I am a human being and nothing human can be alien to me.”When I was really young, my father's mother, my grandmother, who was raising me, used to tell me, 'Sister, when you get, give. And when you learn, teach.” That is the good life.
TSN: When you traveled, you learned a lot of different languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language Fanti). How did you learn so many languages?
MS: I managed to listen. I learned years ago to listen. I spent a number years as a volunteer mute, and at one time I used to think of my whole body as an ear: that I could walk into a room and just absorb sound.
TSN: After all your travels, is there still somewhere you would like to visit?
MA: There are many places I'd go back to. I've been pretty much around the world, and it's been my pleasure. You're a Canadian aren't you?
TSN: Actually I'm Scottish, but the Canadian accent is similar.
MA: I've spent time in Scotland. The BBC asked me to do a seminal piece on Robert Burns. It was called “Angelou on Burns.” So I went to Edinburgh and did the television documentary.
TSN: I hope you enjoyed yourself. Would you go back to Scotland?
MA: Yes I would. I really enjoyed Scotland. I've been at the festival many times. I am very cared for in Scotland.
Maya Angelou was cared for all over the world. Her books brought her devotion and acclaim because they spoke so powerfully to the human experience. Her courage in revealing her rape as a child and her years of silence, opened the door for millions more women to speak.