Over the course of February, Maya Angelou's Black History Month Special will be broadcast in cities across the nation. Her first-ever radio public program features special guests Chris Rock, Cornell West, Common and Lee Daniels. It is a great American patchwork, a quilt woven of parables, historical anecdotes, autobiography, song, and poetry.
The stories she conjures echo both past and present, they emphasize our common humanity, and they celebrate the individual. Her own life is very much a mosaic of this sort. As an accomplished writer, dancer, singer, and director, who is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and West African Fanti, Dr. Angelou is indeed a renaissance woman.
As a master of many mediums, her dive into radio at the age of 82 presented an exciting challenge. "It's a different matter altogether --- I like it, I enjoy being on radio -- but it calls for things that are new to me," she explains. "In the other areas in which I work, seeing is very important. That is to say, when I'm writing I have to imagine visually what I'm talking about, what I'm writing about. When I'm writing poetry of course it is imperative that I have a good visual sense of the elements I'm trying to describe." Radio's sonic nature introduces technical hurdles as well; she hopes that over the course of the month, "the people who receive my output have sharp and well-defined hearing."
The program pointedly draws its inspiration from all walks of life; she quotes Greek philosophers alongside old yarns from her rural youth. Dr. Angelou recounts one story of a man at the turn of the last century who longs to "have more history to tell to other people so that he himself would know his own." Dr. Angelou has fashioned a radio special in this man's likeness. She presents the whole of human history as one communal past and celebrates African-American culture alongside the many cultures of the world.
"I've longed for a time when there isn't a black history month, and American history is taught and revealed along with all history," she confesses. "But until that time, it's imperative that the African American knows his or her past. You can never know where you're going unless you know where you've been."
The scope of Angelou's Black History Month Special is not only historically and stylistically broad, it leapfrogs from tales of comedy to heartbreak and touches everything in between. Introducing Chris Rock, she remarks, "Often in the black culture it is said, we laughed to keep from crying." She elaborates, "I think Chris Rock is a very intelligent fellow. He reminds me of the great comedians who knew a lot, and could tell a lot in a funny way. I'm impressed with him, and with Dave Chappelle, and with many of the fellows. He would tell a bitter truth, and would tell it in such a way that you laugh, and when you laugh maybe some of the pain is removed." She offers an example from personal experience:
For instance, I came from a small area in Arkansas. I grew up in a little village there from three to 13. People would say there was so much prejudice in the town that black people couldn't eat vanilla ice cream, that black people only could eat chocolate. Of course that's not true, but it made black people laugh.
She compares this to director Daniel Lee's Precious, which takes an unrelenting look at African-American hardships. "My first response was to turn it off, to run away from it," recalls Angelou. "It tells such a painful truth. I almost wish there had been more fiction in it. It's a different truth. I'm never happy to know how cruel we can be to each other, but that's the truth -- we can be, and often are."
Well a number of people think that black people are different from them. The truth is that human beings are more alike than we are unalike and a number of non-black people think that the problems which befall black people are not like the problems which befall them, and that black people would respond differently to an onslaught of certain elements than whites. But that's not true either.
For more information on Dr. Angelou's radio program, visit her website.
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