Little sisters with Maya
Linda Wolf met with Maya Angelou to talk with her about how she came to forgive and love herself, after having gone through so many dark moments of the soul in her own life. Portions of this interview were originally printed in In Context magazine, Issue #43.
Dr. Maya Angelou, author and professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, has been hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature.
Linda: Theres a girl in one of our groups who was molested
by her father when she was young. Shes never told anyone,
even her mother, and he is not hurting her now. She says that even
though he is a small man and that what happened to her was a mild
thing, she is still afraid of him.
Dr. Angelou: No, no, those are two mistakes. There is no mild
molestation and no brute is ever small. The man or woman who
is brutalizing somebody could be four foot tall, but the molester
is never small and no molestation is ever mild. It attacks the very
spirit. I can only say to her, I feel with you, because
once one is molested its very hard to feel clean again. Very
hard. I spent almost seven years not talking [after being raped].
So tell her you feel with her - not for her or to her but with her.
And I would encourage her to get counseling as soon as possible.
Linda: After all youve been through, including being raped
as a child, how did you continue to have good feelings for yourself,
to like yourself?
Dr. Angelou: I dont know if I continue, even today, always
liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive
myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself
or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes - it is inevitable.
But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself
and say, Well, if Id known better Id have done
better, thats all. So you say to people you think you
may have injured, Im sorry, and then you say to
yourself, Im sorry. If we hold on to the mistake,
we cant see our own glory in the mirror because we have the
mistake between our faces and the mirror; we cant see what
were capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others,
but in the end the real forgiveness is in ones own self. I
think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see
themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive,
as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or
too thick or too sexual or too asexual, thats rough. But you
can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think
about yourself. If we dont have that we never grow, we never
learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.
Linda: Youve done a lot of things in your life that most people
would judge as wrong. Youve smoked pot, taken drugs, you were
a madam for lesbian prostitutes, a teenage mom, a table dancer -
you didnt follow the straight and narrow. All these experiences
gave you a rich life?
Dr. Angelou: Yes, but I wouldnt suggest it for anybody. I
mean, if you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you
have to do is forgive yourself. If youre in the very gutter,
see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can
be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home
- wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where
your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused
and abused. Get up. But you cant get up unless you see where
you are and admit it. I wrote about my experiences because I thought
too many people tell young folks, I never did anything wrong.
Who, Moi? - never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact,
I have no closet. They lie like that and then young people
find themselves in situations and they think, Damn I must
be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.
They cant forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So
I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name. Meaning that all those
grown people, all those adults, all those parents and grandparents
and teachers and preachers and rabbis and priests who lie to the
children can gather together in my name and I will tell them the
truth. Wherever you are, you have got to admit it and set about
to make a change. Thats why I wrote that book. Its the
most painful book Ive ever written.
Linda: Do you see hope for this world?
Dr. Angelou: Oh, yes
Linda: What do you tell young people who see nothing but the world falling apart?
Dr. Angelou: It seems terrible. Theres racism and sexism and
ageism and all sorts of idiocies. But bad news is not news. Weve
had bad news as a species for a long time. Weve had slavery
and human sacrifice and the holocaust and brutalities of such measure.
We cant imagine what Attila the Hun did or the cruelties of
the period when the church, the great Inquisition, sliced people
open from their heads to their groin and gutted them. And women
were burned at the stake and stoned to death, as were men. We cant
imagine it. Today we say, Ah, how horrible. But the
truth is, we have had bad news a long time. Yet, amazingly, we have
survived. And while on the one hand we have the brutes, the bigots,
and the bullies, at the same time we have had men and women who
dreamed great dreams. Weve had Galileo and Aesop, Paul Laurence
Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois. Weve had Sholem Asch, and Shalom
Aleichem - great dreamers. Weve had women who stood alone,
whether it was Harriet Tubman or Mother Jones. Weve had Margaret
Sanger. Weve had women who have stood in the gap and said,
Im here to try to save the world. You have to
think who we are. If you made a map five miles long and five miles
wide of the universe, Earth would be smaller than a pin-head. I
think it may have been Durant who said if you make a model the size
of the Empire State Building, and flat on the top of the spire you
put a postage stamp, the model would represent how long Earth has
been here, the spire would represent how long life has been here,
the thickness of the stamp would represent how long human beings
have been here, and the thickness of the ink would represent how
long weve been sentient. So were the newest group on
this little blob of spit and sand. This is what young women and
men should know. They should know that we are carnivorous, yet we
have decided somehow not only to not eat our brothers and sisters,
who may be delicious, but to accord them some rights and to try
to love them and look after them. I dont want young men and
women looking around and saying, Oh my God, oh mea culpa,
its so awful. Its bad but its also good,
and its up to each one of us to make it better. Every one
of us. We deserve our future.
Linda: What advice do you have for girls?
Dr. Angelou: To laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It is the
sweetest thing one can do for oneself and ones fellow human
being. When people see the laughing face, even if theyre jealous
of it, their burden is lightened. But do it first for yourself.
Laugh and dare to try to love somebody, starting with yourself.
Linda: Its hard to love.
Dr. Angelou: Its hard because people think they have something
to lose and the truth is they have everything to gain in trying
to love somebody. You must love yourself first, of course, and you
must protect yourself when you can. Protect yourself so that nobody
overrides you, overrules you, or steps on you. You say, Just
a minute, Im worth everything, dear. If you really realize
that, you realize everybody else is worth everything. Everybody.
Fat and thin and plain and pretty, white and black and rich and
poor, thick and slow and brilliant. Everybody is worth everything.
Start with yourself, though.