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Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers

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“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”

In the early 1970s, revered interviewer Bill Moyers met reconstructionist Maya Angelou — beloved poet, memoirist, dramatist, actor, producer, filmmaker, civil rights activist, and one of the most influential literary voices of our time — at a dinner party in New York. As the two began talking, they realized they had grown up only a hundred miles apart in the South — he, a white boy in “the gentle and neighborly white world that opened generously to ambition and luck”; she, a black girl “in the tight and hounded other world of the South, whose boundaries black children crossed only in their imagination, and even then at intolerable risk”; “two strangers from the same but different place.”

This is what Moyers recalls as he sits down with Angelou on November 21, 1973 and proceeds to shepherd one of his legendary interviews, found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection Conversations with Maya Angelou (public library).

After Moyers, a true celebrator of his guests, enumerates Angelou’s many accomplishments and accolades in a short biographical introduction, he smoothly glides into the uncomfortable but necessary, asking the author about the parallel struggles of being both black and female “in a society that doesn’t know who you are.” Her answer comes as a vital reminder that “identity is something that you are constantly earning … a process that you must be active in”:

Well, one works at it, certainly. Being free is as difficult and as perpetual — or rather fighting for one’s freedom, struggling towards being free, is like struggling to be a poet or a good Christian or a good jew or a good Moslem or a good Zen Buddhist. You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up in the next morning with the job still to be done. So you start all over again.

President Barack Obama awards Dr. Maya Angelou the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on February 15, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (AP photo via NPR)

She addresses the laziness of stereotypes:

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie, that’s a nigger, that’s a kike, that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it.

When Moyers asks Angelou whether she sees the women’s liberation movement, reaching its most critical zenith at the time, as “a white woman’s fantasy,” she replies with a meditation on sociocultural history:

No, certainly not a fantasy. … A necessity. … They definitely need it. … [But it says] very little [to black women], I’m afraid. You see, white women have been made to feel in this society that they are superfluous. A white man can run his society.

[…]

The white American man makes the white American woman maybe not superfluous but just a little kind of decoration. Not really important to the turning around of the wheels.

Well, the black American woman has never been able to feel that way. No black American man at any time in our history in the United States has been able to feel that he didn’t need that black woman right against him, shoulder to shoulder — in that cotton field, on the auction block, in the ghetto, wherever. That black woman is an integral if not a most important part of the family unit. There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It’s as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet. And I believe that we have to thank black women not only for keeping the black family alive but the white family.

Later in the conversation, Angelou makes the curious assertion that Watergate is “the most positive thing that is happening in this country” (and it’s interesting to revisit her rationale four decades later, with a movement like Occupy), explaining:

I believe so. Because white Americans — you see, there was a period when white Americans were marching in Selma and marching to Washington, for the blacks they thought, you see. But the struggle due to Watergate is for the whites. It’s for their morality, for their integrity. It’s the first time since the early part of the nineteenth century that a great mass of whites have really been concerned about their own morality. In the early part of the nineteenth century there were whites who became Abolitionists and supported the Underground railroad, not because they loved blacks but because they loved truth. And not since that time — I mean all the World War II business, where we all got together and balled up string, and so forth, was for somebody else. It was for the Jews and Europe.

But suddenly — not so suddenly — in the United States the people are concerned about their own morality, their own continuation. … And that, I believe, will reflect in turn and in time on the black American struggle.

Presaging her timeless wisdom on home and belonging penned 35 years later, Angelou once again returns to the subject of freedom:

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

When Moyers asks Angelou what wisdom she’d share with a hypothetical young daughter — a question that would sprout the wonderful Letter to My Daughter more than three decades later — she offers:

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

Moyers asks Angelou how, despite the devastating events of her life, she managed to “stay open to the world, open to hope,” and she reflects:

Well, I think you get to a place where you realize you have nothing to lose. Nothing at all. Then you have no reason to bind yourself. I had no reason to hold on. I found it stupid to hold on, to close myself up and hold within me nothing. So I decided to try everything, to keep myself wide open to human beings, all human beings — seeing them as I understand them to be, not as they wish they were, but as I understand them to be. Very truthfully — not idealistically, but realistically. And seeing that if this person knew better he would do better. That doesn’t mean that I don’t protect myself from his actions, you know.

(Exactly twenty years later, Angelou would come to capture this ethos in her wonderful children’s book, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, illustrated by the great Jean-Michel Basquiat.)

The interview closes by coming full-circle to the question of freedom, on which Angelou offers one final, poignant, counterintuitive but profound meditation:

Being free is being able to accept people for what they are, and not try to understand all they are or be what they are. … I think one of the most dangerous statements made in the United States, or descriptive phrases, is that it’s a melting pot. And look at the goo it’s produced.

Find more of Angelou’s enduring wisdom in the rest of Conversations with Maya Angelou, which features thirty-one more remarkable and revealing interviews with the celebrated author and modern sage.

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