Legendary poet, writer and performer Dr. Maya Angelou has shared details of her extraordinary life in her many best-selling autobiographies, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In her latest book, Mom & Me & Mom, she shares the story of the most influential and complicated relationship of her life - with her indomitable mother Vivian Baxter. The book is an inspiring and touching story of growth and healing, of life lessons learned, and the profound power of love and connection.
I recently had the privilege of talking to the 85-year-old literary icon about her mother, her book and her incredible life journey. Dr. Angelou was warm, thoughtful, and open-hearted -- exuding such a beautiful spirit -- and offering me her own personal motherly advice.
Marianne Schnall: I interviewed you a few years ago about your last book, Letter to My Daughter - each book of yours is such a wonderful gift to the people who read it. And your latest book is so inspiring and so moving - what an incredible life that you've had. What were some of the most important lessons that you learned from your mother that served you in your life that you think would be helpful or relevant to other people today?
Maya Angelou: Well, I learned - and I just figured it out yesterday [laugh] - I learned that my mother was always on my side. And that really liberated me. Because when teachers or people in authority put me down or in one way or another tried to make me feel less than equal to what they thought I should be - my mother was on my side. It was amazing. And I really figured it out yesterday - long after I finished writing the book and living the life of Vivian Baxter's daughter. But I realized that that's what allowed me to become the parent I did become. I have been on my son's side. So when those in authority told me he had not done something, or he had something non-approvable - and I would ask him, "Will you tell me what you did?" And usually the professor, the teacher, the principal would say, "Oh, no, no - we'll tell you." And I'd say, "No, no - he must tell me - this concerns him." And I realized that my mother gave me that - which meant that I had the greatest support system in the world.
MS: I was very aware of how pivotal those moments were for you when she would tell you, "You are the greatest woman I ever met." What a wonderful thing for a mother to say - and then I remember at the end of that chapter, you said it made pause and say to yourself, "Well, maybe I could be somebody."
MA: Yes, yes. She actually said, "Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt and my mother," - she said, "You're in that category." I was 22 years old! She said she was too mean to lie. [laughs] And she was very intelligent. So I thought, suppose she's right? Suppose I do have something? Suppose I am going to be somebody?
MS: Being able to hold that vision of yourself through her eyes seems to be very important throughout your life - we should all be so lucky to have someone like that. The other thing that struck me in your book, everybody has different challenges and obstacles they face in their life, and we tend to think of them in a negative, dreading way - and yet, especially in terms of your life, it seems like they are the factors that shape you and help you to evolve into the person you are going to be. How do you think you think your life experience molded you into the person that you are today?
MA: Well, in many ways I became unafraid because of Vivian Baxter. I realized that she really was an incredible supporter, an incredible love and support, and I don't think that you could have anybody stronger - anybody - I mean, if you were the President of the United States or the Queen of England - you couldn't have a person who would be more protective than my mother was for me. Which meant really that I could dare to do all sorts of things. And I could even dare to be somebody. She told me when I was pregnant at 16, and she asked me, "Do you know who the father was?" I said, 'Yes." I had only had sex once. And she asked, 'Do you love him?' I said, "No." She asked, "Does he love you?" I said, "No." She said, "In that case, we're not going to ruin three lives. We're going to have a wonderful baby.' And she never once made me feel I had brought shame on the family or I had done a terrible thing. And she loved my son. Which of course liberated me a lot too.
MS: The other thing that comes through in the book was incredible capacity to forgive - whether it was your mother, or the man who had raped you as a child, or the injustices of the human race. Why to you is forgiveness important, and what advice do you have on forgiving? Because I feel like that can be hard for many people.
MA: I know it can be - but I think that it's one of the most important of the gifts you can give to the human race - is to forgive people. And mind you, what you do, of course, is you liberate your own self - you liberate yourself from carrying that weight around. So that when you say, "I forgive you," it's a giant gift. A gift that's first to yourself - because it means you're not toting that burden around and saying, "I have this. I will never forgive you." And then of course that means you will never be free, you will never be at ease - you will be continually burdened. So I think to learn how to forgive, it's a great lesson to learn. And I never had that feeling that I had to carry the weight of somebody's ignorance around with me. And that was true for racists who wanted to use the 'n' word when talking about me or about my people, or the stupidity of people who really wanted to belittle other folks because they weren't pretty or they weren't rich or they weren't clever. I never had that feeling that I had to carry that around - that was somebody else's problem not mine. And a part of that, of course, I learned from Vivian Baxter.
MS: You always seemed to be in touch with and to follow your instincts, to know who you were, which these days can be difficult - there's so much pressure on young people - especially on girls and young women - to conform, to be liked. Where do you think your strength in your sense of self, your self knowledge came from, and what advice can you offer on developing into your authentic self so that you fulfill your potential and live the life you were meant to?
MA: Well, I think I have had so much blessing - I've had my brother, who was brilliant - I think my family came closest to making a genius when they made my brother - Bailey, was just all of that. He loved me. And when other people laughed at me and called me dummy, he said, 'Don't worry about them calling you a dummy - they're stupid - you're smarter than anyone here, except me of course!" [laughs] And he was absolutely right! He told me that I was very intelligent and that I had to depend upon myself - and he knew more than most people. And if he said I was very intelligent, I believed him! So that was a big gift.
MS: You're so fortunate to have had such supportive people around you your whole life. And it just shows you that no matter what your circumstances are, the importance of people, and of connection and of love.
MA: Exactly. Also, it was important for me, to not only to have them, but I also became a kind of supportive person around other people. I became the kind of parent, my mother was to me. I was on my son's side.
MS: I know I try to do the same for my daughters as well.
MA: How old is your daughter?
MS: Well, one turns 12 today, her name is Lotus - and another one is Jazmin, who is 15.
MA: Do you know a poet, Phyllis McGinley? She wrote a poem called "Portrait of a Girl with a Comic Book". And please, you can get it off the Internet. When we hang up you will love it. It says, 'Thirteen is no age at all.' Please look at it. You will see your daughters. You will see the 15 -year-old and the 12-year-old. You will see them both. When I read it - I fortunately read it when my son was young, and it meant a lot to me in raising my son.
MS: I will definitely get it - it will be first thing I do when we get off the phone.
MA: Thank you, thank you.
MS: I know you recently founded the Maya Angelou Women's Health and Wellness Center which was a beautiful thing to do. Women have so much that they're juggling these days and are often taking care of so many people, frequently at the expense of themselves. Do you have advice or thoughts on creating health and wellness? And why it was important to you to found that center?
MA: Encouragement to all women is - let us try to offer help before we have to offer therapy. That is to say, let's see if we can't prevent being ill by trying to offer a love of prevention before illness. You see what I mean? So that we don't have to wait to get sick and then try to find a way to heal ourselves. Let's do the right thing - that is, really, be on our own side. Get the mammograms. Have all the chances with our doctors and our health officials. Go there and see how we're doing physically. How we're doing on our own health. How we are doing vis-a-vis our hearts. How are we doing. I think that that's the wisest thing - to prevent illness before we try to cure something.
MS: What do you hope people take away from your book and from the example of your life?
MA: Well, I hope that they would take away the idea that the parents can be on the side of their children. Please - be their supporters, be their protectors and let them know that. That doesn't mean that you indulge and condone mismanagement and bad action - but you can say, "I'm on your side. Now, this is not acceptable. And the reason it's not acceptable is that you might get hurt in the management of the interaction. But I'm on your side - I want you to do well. I love you. That doesn't mean I indulge you - I have sentimentality and it means I really love you and I want you to live a good life."
MS: Both of my daughters were so excited that I was going to be talking to you - which really says a lot - young girls are growing up having learned about your beautiful writing and gleaning wisdom from your inspiring life. What would be your wish for young girls today?
MA: I wish they all had a mother like you. Or me. I wish they did. So that they know they have protection and they have support. And even when they're wrong, it will be explained to them why they are wrong. Not just put down.
MS: What to you is the meaning of life? Often people don't just stop to think about it - we often just plow through our lives in almost autopilot ways - what to you gives it meaning?
MA: Well, I have a feeling that I make a very good friend, and I'm a good mother, and a good sister, and a good citizen. I am involved in life itself - all of it. And I have a lot of energy and a lot of nerve. And I find that I make friends with women who are very much like me. They may be black or white or Asian or Spanish speaking, they may be young or old or pretty or plain, but if they also have a sense of good humor and pizzazz, and dare to think that this is their life, and they can take some chances with it - then it's very likely that we'll make friends. And over time we'll talk about matters of pith and moment.
Photo of Maya Angelou and her mother courtesy of the Angelou Personal Collection.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. Marianne's forthcoming book, "What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership, and Power" will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2013. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.