The New Sun

An Interview with Maya Angelou
by David Frost

David Frost: And one of your teachers, one of your religious teachers, said -- made you say, "God loves me, God loves me, God loves me," again and again, and then said, "Now try to know it."

Maya Angelou: Yes, yes.

DF: What was the liberating effect of knowing it?

MA: David Frost.

DF: Maya Angelou.

MA: As the cockney say, "I come all over queer." Really. The idea that it, this creation, creator, it, loves me, me -- not me generically, but me, Maya Angelou -- is almost more -- it is more than I can comprehend. It fills me. It enters and makes me go inflate like a balloon. Really. The most amazing thing. I can't know it too frequently. I can't know it completely. My heart might burst. My veins might boil up, and my blood might boil up in my veins. My eyes would pop out. My navel would thump. My feet would grow about six inches on either side. Really it has a physiological impact on me. And I can't -- again, it's something I can't explain. It's probably what people mean when they say, "I got saved last week or last year." I suppose that's what they mean. But that knowledge comes to me fresh each time, as if I never knew it before.

DF: In your poem to the U.N., you said, "We, this people, on a small and lonely plant traveling through casual space, passed a lot of stars, across a way of indifferent suns to a destination where all signs tell us it is possible and imperative that we discover a brave and startling truth."

MA: Yes.

DF: What -- can you see the shape of that brave and startling truth?

MA: Yes. I think we have to start to love life. Again, I didn't think about that 'til this moment, but Thomas Wolfe said in A Web and a Rock, "And in loving life, hate death." We have got to start loving life and the living. We have to respect that thing which we cannot create, which is life and stop taking it from people and stop taking it from things. Stop taking it. We can't make it. We can't reproduce one single person. Stop minimizing people's lives by our ignorance, at our whim, for our own personal convenience. You see, I can minimize your life. I can keep you from getting that job. I can keep you from having respect for yourself. I can keep you from being able to support your children. I can keep you from that. I can minimize your life. Yes, I can. So I can live fuller.

Well, we've got to get beyond that. And it is passed aloof stars. I mean, we are living on this mote of matter. That's exactly what it is. And we live about that long. (Snaps fingers.) I mean, to realize that the reptiles were on this little blob of spit and sand for 200 million years and here we are (snaps fingers) moths of time. And so -- and even so in this little brief interlude, we can pinch out somebody's life. We have to force ourselves to be more intelligent. I don't mean intellectually agile either, but really intelligent.

DF: Where did Caged Bird come from, that title?

MA: It came from a poem written by Sir Lawrence Dunbar, a black male poet writing in the 1800s.

DF: Do you remember that?

MA: Yes. It's called Sympathy -- the poem.

I know what the caged bird feels.
Ah me, when the sun is bright on the upland slopes,
when the wind blows soft through the springing grass
and the river floats like a sheet of glass,
when the first bird sings and the first bud ops,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals.
I know what the caged bird feels
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars,
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bow aswing.
And the blood still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting.
I know why he beats his wing.
I know why the caged bird sings.
Ah, me, when its wings are bruised and is bosom sore.
It beats its bars and would be free.
It's not a carol of joy or glee,
but a prayer that it send from its heart's deep core,
but a plea that upward to heaven it flings.
I know why the caged bird sings.

DF: That is a fantastic poem. Fantastic poem. And, I mean, you've escaped from a cage a few times in your life. You've had crises in your life. And people have said, "How did she escape from this and how did she escape from that and go on to the life she's had?" and so on. And you said on one occasion, "How the hell do you know I did escape? You don't know what demons I still wrestle with." Is that right?

MA: Of course. Of course. I mean, probably the only true escape is death, but even that is that undiscovered country from whose bond, you know, no traveler returns. So -- but, no, there's no --

DF: There's a few demons still?

MA: There are still. I mean, if you have -- it's almost impossible to grow up. Most people just get older, and they find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, choose personal preferences in drink, have the nerve to get married and have children, and they call that growing up. That's not. That's getting older. Growing up is so painful if you happen to be white in a white country or rich in a country where money is adored and worshipped. But still, it's very hard. Growing up is admitting that there are demons you cannot overcome. You wrestle with the, oh, yes, like the prophet with the angel, you know: "I will not let you go until you tell me something." But sometimes that's what causes the tired person to become an insomniac, because the demons are so thick around the head.

DF: And that's where God is needed, too, you would say.

MA: Yes, I would say.

DF: And the greatest of all the virtues in this life, you said once --

MA: Is courage. Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

DF: And the greatest of the three, or whatever it is that the Bible said, is courage?

MA: Well, I say so. The Bible says it's charity or it's love, yes.

DF: Love. Well, you would also say love in a different context.

MA: Yes, that's right.

DF: Well, it's been a joy having this conversation. I've really loved it. If they decide to have a race commission it this country, would you like to run it?

MA: Oh, God, I'd like to write a poem about it. (Laughs.)

DF: (Laughs.) Thank you so much.

MA: Thank you very much, David Frost.

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Reprinted with permission from WNET/Channel 13.