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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

14 JUNE, 2013

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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24 MAY, 2013

The Philosophy of Immortality

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“Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”

“If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist?,” Rilke famously asked. “The idea that you’d have to say ‘goodbye’ to all this — even though it’s infuriating and maddening and frightening and horrible, some of the time — is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible: How do you spend this time without perpetually being so broken-hearted about saying the eventual goodbye?,” Maira Kalman pondered.

In this short interview for Brain Pickings, pop-philosophy hunter-gatherer Filip Matous sits down with Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave to crack open some of the insights from his fascinating book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library) — which also gave us this stimulating, if unsettling meditation on the mortality paradox.

The crux of Cave’s argument falls somewhere between Montaigne’s reflections on death and the art of living and John Cage’s affinity for Zen Buddhism.

We, like all living things, want to live on — we want to project ourselves into the future, we have this will to live. And yet, unlike other living things, we have to live in a knowledge that this will is going to be thwarted, that we’re going to die. And so we might have to live with this sense of personal apocalypse — the worst thing that could possibly happen, will. This is what it means to be mortal.

But this very sense of our inevitable mortality might also be a steering wheel for life: Cave reminds us that “busy is a choice” and that how we spend our time shapes who we become:

The American novelist Susan Ertz says, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” I think there’s a lot of truth in that: Actually, it’s the fear of death rather than the love of life, often, that’s motivating us. If people complain that they don’t have enough time, why do they watch so much TV? It doesn’t seem, actually, when we look at the way people behave, that lack of time is their problem. On the contrary … when you look at how much time we waste, [it seems] that life is already too long — so long that we become complacent and we waste great swathes, so many hours. And, in fact, being conscious of the fact that our time is limited is what makes us really value and appreciate the time that we have.

Cave touches on Tolstoy’s wisdom, observing:

There’s a kind of conspiracy of silence… We, culturally, don’t like to talk about death. I think we need to talk about death because only by talking about our mortality can we understand the lives we’re leading and why we’re leading them the way we’re leading them.

Immortality remains a must-read, and the Ernest Becker book mentioned in the conversation, The Denial of Death, is also very much worth a read.

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06 MAY, 2013

Love and Art: The Secret to a Romantic Relationship That’s Also a Creative Collaboration

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“Relationships are our greatest learning experiences.”

If you, like me, thought it wasn’t possible to admire the writer-illustrator battery of genius behind the recent gem Lost Cat any more, you’re about to be, like I was, promptly proven wrong. In a recent episode of her award-winning Design Matters radio show, interviewer extraordinaire and Renaissance woman Debbie Millman talks to the talented duo — writer Caroline Paul and friend-of-Brain-Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — about their individual creative evolution, their remarkable collaboration, and the secret of not merely balancing a romantic relationship with a professional one but actually making an art of both.

Here are some favorite highlights of the conversation about the intricacies of creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, our capacity for self-transcendence, and the wonderful Lost Cat — a tender illustrated memoir about the quest to find out where Caroline’s 13-year-old tabby had gone and what it reveals about human relationships and the secret of love.

On mastering the balance of a creative collaboration and a romantic relationship, and the secret of how the two fuel each other:

It took a little while for us to figure out, like in any relationship, how to talk about [our creative differences] without taking it personally, and how to end up coming to the best creative conclusion. … We managed to figure out a system, with structure, and then stick to that — so it took the pressure off, so we could make collaborative decisions in an easier way.

On what Lost Cat teaches us about humanity:

The biggest thing I learned is that you cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

On one of my favorite illustrations from the book and how it captures the inner “Tibby” we all harbor:

On what Lost Cat teaches us about human relationships:

On what true love necessitates:

And what humans are capable of when in love, and what it takes to pull ourselves out of a depression:

Wendy, on designing for the first democratic election in Rwanda and why her ad agency dream job turned out not to be so existentially dreamy after all:

I thought that I could, in advertising, make people ask questions and make them think. And advertising is a fantastic thing where you come up with ideas, but it’s not as much about asking people to think than just telling them what to think.

Wendy on why drawing is like a muscle that bridges hand and brain, and needs constant stimulation to prevent atrophy:

Caroline, who spent several years as one of fifteen female firefighters on San Francisco’s 1,500-person Fire Department and wrote an extraordinary memoir about it, on gender differences in the experience of fear:

If you talk about being scared, you kind of become scared… If you’re a woman, and you’re one of the few, whatever you do reflects on all women.

Caroline on the allure of blending fiction and nonfiction in East Wind, Rain, her scintillating novel about the attack on Pearl Harbor, based on a fascinating true story:

The philosophical moral of the Lost Cat story, read in the world’s best voice:

You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.

Treat yourself to the soul-warmer that is Lost Cat, listen to the full interview below, and be sure to subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud for more infinitely stimulating conversations at the intersection of creative culture and philosophy.

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