A Conversation With Maya
A Voice of Promise, A Voice of Heart
by Sydney L. Murray
Maya Angelou gives me hope for myself and our world. Angelou
is imbued with Southern gentility and style, a grand dame
of poetry and prose and an ambassador of peace. Her work resonates
with so many because it is life distilled: the pain, the promise,
the unadulterated truth. I had a chance to speak with Dr.
Angelou before her appearance at San Diego State as part of
the Border Voices Poetry Project. I wish you could have heard
her bountiful and generous laugh interspersed with her melodic
SLM: Are we reaching the promise you
spoke of at the Clinton inauguration?
MA: I believe that some of us are reaching toward it and some
of us are turning our backs to it. A magazine such as yours,
Vision Magazine, is very important. The people who
work and grow in those areas toward better health and better
lives that's reaching toward the promise. But it's important
to enjoy the process and to be in process and to know, at
our best, we're in process. We must understand that we are
in process and be pleased with what we are able to achieve,
and to leave something for someone else to do is okay. The
next step is to be grateful for the achievements we've accomplished
so far. Sometimes we spend our future, let alone our present,
whimpering that we haven't gotten any farther. In truth we
could all be grateful that we've gotten this far, so that
young people coming along behind us don't find themselves
cynical because the older ones are saying that nothing has
been accomplished. The most tragic figures are young cynics,
because they've gone from believing nothing to knowing nothing.
SLM: What does "organic living"
mean to you?
MA: Organic living is living true to my responsibility as
a human being. Organic living is about the time in my life
and the space I occupy. It's accepting the statement Terence
made in 154 B.C. I am a human being and nothing human
can be alien to me. That is organic living. It says,
in effect, if a human being commits a heinous crime, I could
never say, I could never do that, because a human
being did do that. I can say that I intend to use my energies
constructively as opposed to destructively. However, if that
person did do that, I have within me the wherewithal to do
that too. If I can accept the negative, I can accept all of
the positive. If a human being dreams a great dream,
if a human being dares to love someone and has the unmitigated
gall to accept love in return, if a human being looks at herself
(himself) and approves of herself and gives herself permission
to have authority over her life...now that, to me, is organic
living. I accept that all the children are my children. All
of them, the little white ones, the little
black ones, the little beige ones, yellow ones and red ones.
That all of them are mine: that is organic. There is the superficial,
physical organic living but that doesn't even come to my thinking
until I think first of the spiritual and organic psychological
SLM: Are you connected to women around
the world who are speaking their truths?
MA: I'm connected to all sorts of women. I was just speaking
to Clarrisa Pikola Estés who is amazing; she's educated
people on life and all of life's mysteries. We've spent some
time together. There are women in West Africa with whom I'm
close and a poet in Egypt with whom I've been close. I can't
find her and that's difficult, because sometimes when you
rub against the wrong person, in the wrong way, you may not
be seen of or heard from by those that love you. A sister-friend
of mine since 1960 just recently died. My son had an automobile
accident and I had been at the hospital day and night; we
had just arrived in Ghana. I was watching after him for about
a week and a friend took me to see her and she said, Sister,
you must cry, it is time for you to cry and you need a sister
to watch you cry. I will watch you cry. We began our
friendship on that note. She had a children's publishing house
in Ghana where she published books, plays and poems. She was
a great woman and a loving sister. Still, my boastful description
of her is laced with grief. She was my closest sister-friend.
I use that (memory) to fill my cup rather than to feel bereft. SLM: I've always loved the quote of yours, If one
is lucky a single fantasy will transform a million realities.
MA: Something has happened to us. We tend to think that we
always need to be in company. That belief has filtered down:
that we need company. Children risk their lives and sometimes
lose their lives trying to remain in company. They join gangs
and girls become sexually active before they're really interested,
because they want to be in company. I think if one dares to
allow oneself to be in solitude, a great deal of organic health
can amass itself. And this helps the person who dares to be
in solitude to see there is another way. SLM: What is your
vision for this next century?
MA: I imagine there's going to be some more turpitude. I haven't
used that word in 40 years. There will be more disenchantment.
Sooner or later we are going to be obliged to use our brains;
maybe in the next 20 years we'll have a worldwide situation
which will force us to use our brains and we might actually
face up to our organic responsibility.
We'll start looking for politicos that are so good we won't
call them politicos. They'll be thoughtful, courageous, caring
men and women who will understand that their position/responsibility
includes looking after every child, making sure that the sick
and the weak and the weary are not left behind, without being
called goody two-shoes or bleeding hearts.
SLM: Is there one thing each one of
us could do to make the world a better place?
MA: Give something away that you really like.
Are you connected to women around the world?
MA: I am connected to all sorts of
women. There are several women in West Africa that I am very
close to. I recently suffered the loss of a very special woman
who died. I met her when I was living in Ghana. We met under
very trying circumstances. I had just moved to Ghana and didn't
really know very many people. My son had just been in an automobile
accident and I had been at the hospital day and night for
over a week. A friend came by the hospital and encouraged
me to take a break and we went to this woman's home. She told
me, "Sister you must cry, it is time for you to cry and you
need a sister to watch you cry. I will watch you cry." We
began our friendship on that note. She was a publisher of
children's books, plays and poems. She was a great woman and
a loving sister. Still, my boastful description of her is
laced with grief. She was my closest sister-friend. I use
that (memory) to fill my cup rather than feeling bereft at
the loss of this wonderful woman.
The Rock Cries
Out To Us Today
by Maya Angelou
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing
The river sings on and on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers--
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot..
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours--your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.