By Meenu Krishnan, Editor-in-chief
Maya Angelou is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated members of the Wake Forest community. Angelou, Reynolds Professor of American Studies, will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame this October. The Old Gold & Black spoke exclusively with Angelou about her inspirations, the state of race relations in America and her lesser-known time as a calypso singer.
What does it mean to you to be inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Literary Fame?
It's a wonderful thing among friends and neighbors, saying thank you. That's what an award is saying. Thank you for doing work, thank you for being diligent, thank you for being courageous. Thank you for sharing your gifts. It's a marvelous thing.
What led you to becoming a professor at Wake Forest?
Before I was given the Reynolds professorship, I'd always thought of myself as a writer who could teach. After about two years, I'd accepted the post by saying I would take it for one year. If I really liked it, I'll take it a second year. That was 31 years ago. I have found that I'm not a writer who can teach, I really am a teacher who can write.
You have taught literature, ethics and writing. What is your favorite subject to teach?
I can't answer that. If you ask me at 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning, I might say anything. Next day, it might be another answer. It depends on what recently touched me. If I read poetry recently, I'd say poetry. If I read biography, I'd say biography.
There is a debate regarding whether a reader or a writer determines the meaning of a work. Who do you believe that literature belongs to, the reader or the author?
Of course it belongs to both. It belongs to the writer until it's written. Once it's written, it belongs to everybody. Everybody puts their own meaning on it, according to their life and understanding, according to their interest. I've had people explain to me what my poem meant, and I've been surprised that it means that to them. If a person can use a poem of mine to interpret her life or his life, good. I can't control that. Nor would I want to.
In the '60s, you worked with many luminaries of the Civil Rights Movement. Do you think that America has become post-racial under President Obama?
America is certainly not post-racial. The political blathering on in this campaign is very unsettling. Racism will not be ended until a black mother's son is as valuable as a white mother's son, until a black father's daughter is as valuable as a white father's daughter. It will continue until each one of us takes responsibility and stops identifying ourselves by our ignorance.
What advice would you have for young writers?
I would encourage young writers to read. Please read aloud. Go into a room, close the door, so you can hear how the language sounds. Read your own work and someone you admire. I'm a great admirer of Langston Hughes' poetry and that of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Virginia Woolf. When I was trying to form my own voice, my own melody, I would read aloud, and I found it did me so much good.
A lesser known fact about you is that in your youth, you were a calypso singer.
My album, Miss Calypso, is available. I did a movie and an album. I sang all over the country, in different parts of the world. It was fun. Every experience shapes your writing, being stuck in a car on a lonely bridge, or dancing at a prom, being the it girl on the beach, all of those things influence your life, they influence how you write, and the topics you choose to write about.