What I learned from meeting Maya Angelou: “There’s always something wanting to come.”

Her day is done.  Dr. Maya Angelou, artist, activist, educator and inspiration, died this morning at the age of 86, according to news reports.

The news felt like a punch in the gut. I met Dr. Angelou first through her books, then in performance, and then in an interview that I never published, until now. She taught me important things about being a woman, a writer, and a public person. This post is  a token of remembrance, and a personal thank you.

Like many women of my generation, I was 17 when I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s searing coming-of-age memoir that recounts a childhood filled with the love, struggle, dislocation and dysfunction that affected many a black family in the Jim Crow South in the years between the Great Wars.  I remember finishing the book, going to my bedroom, looking into the mirror with tears streaming down my face and thinking, “Finally, someone has told my story.”  Not my literal story, of course, but there was enough of my own life experience on those pages, at a time when the lives of black women and girls were still invisible, unspoken – or as Carla Williams said in a slightly different context, “naked neutered or noble.”  I drew inspiration from her poems, and her persona.

And then, seven years later, I was a graduate student in journalism at New York University, in Helen Epstein‘s magazine writing class, and I got it into my head to write about the revival of the Harlem Writer’s Guild.  I had just read Angelou’s account of her 1958 initiation into the Guild in her 1981 memoir,  The Heart of a Woman, and I thought it would be exciting to see the 1980s incarnation of organization that had nurtured the talents of John Henrik Clarke, Quincy Troupe, Lorraine Hansberry and so many other literary lights from my childhood.

John Oliver Killens
John Olver Killens, novelist, essayist and co-founder of the Harlem Writers’ Guild

And so I called Random House, got hold of her publicist, requested an interview, and just like that, I had an appointment with the lady herself.  Not only that, but there was to be a book party sponsored by the Guild, and here was the home telephone number of John Oliver Killens, who could give me the details. Killens. His collection of essays, “Black Man’s Burden,” helped shape my thinking about the 1960s, especially the failings of mainstream media depictions of racial issues. I tried to contain my awe when he answered the phone and casually told me that the book party would be at The Horn of Plenty in SoHo.

I arrived promptly at 6 pm – the hour that the book party was scheduled to begin. I wanted to be early — never having been to such an affair, I was unsure of the protocol and wanted time to compose myself and make sure I looked respectable in my one good dress and serviceable black pumps. Now there was just time to steal a quick glance in the lobby mirror before presenting myself at the dining room doorway. The mirror registered the dark green wallpaper, the ubiquitous ferns, and me in all my schoolgirlishness. It was as if I had wandered on to the set of a Carl Van Vechten photo of some Harlem Renaisssance luminary.

There were just a few people in the dining room, availing themselves of what looked, to my impoverished graduate student eyes, like a sumptuous buffet. Then, the Author strode toward me: stately, graceful, and every bit as intelligent in mien as her book jacket photos suggested. “Hello,” she said, extending her hand with a smile as warm and sweet as pecan pie. “Thank you so much for coming to my party. I’m Maya Angelou.”

“I know. Hello,” I burbled. Oh man, that sounded dumb. Now, what do I say? I wanted to come across as a fellow writer, not a gushing fan. But I had no words, so I just stood there and grinned. Now, a smartly-tailored couple came up from behind me, and Ms. Angelou moved smoothly toward them. After exchanging hellos, the man asked, smiling, “So, are we getting free copies of your latest book tonight?”

Angelou’s eyes flashed briefly, but her smile never changed. “The food is free, but you have to buy the book. Do enjoy your evening.” And she moved on.

There is much that remains in my memory from that night. She performed her classic poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” and she read a side-splitting excerpt from Heart of a Woman about her first reading before the Harlem Writers’ Guild. I met a number of literary figures whose work I had long admired.

But what stays with me most strongly is the way that Ms. Angelou seemed to control the interactions with many of the people who approached her that evening: cordial, but not necessarily friendly. Not unfriendly, mind you, but not inviting intimacy, except of course with the attendees who were, in fact, old friends. With these she laughed and whispered and gave herself as much private time as one can politely give at such as semi-public function. It occurred to me then, that a woman like her must have a repertoire of techniques for setting boundaries between herself and her public, keeping herself accessible, yet unassailable. I realized too, that the confessional and intimate nature of her work gave many readers the impression that they knew her, when what they knew was a persona. She seemed to exert a conscious effort to maintain the distinction between the two.

This seemed even more evident a few days later, during our meeting at the Algonquin. Once again, like the Southern lady that she was, she was cordial. I had brought along my friend Constance Green,  who was then an editor at Feminist Press. Ms. Angelou was having lunch with two friends, and introductions were made all around. She asked whether we were hungry, and of course we said we weren’t. She went on to say, with a chuckle, that she was just telling her friends that her “terrible, wonderful mother,” Vivian Johnson, aka “M’Deah” had recently been forced out of the Merchant Marines, and she was hopping mad about it. It seems that M’Deah lied about her age when she joined up – she was already past the retirement age at the time of her initial application!

Then, she seated herself for the interview, which she allowed me to record. The sound quality of the cassette has long since decayed, but fortunately, I have the transcript, excerpted below. This interview took place October, 12, 1981.

M: I learned from James Baldwin a very important lesson.

K: What was that?

M: Well, I have to tell a story. James Baldwin wrote The Amen Corner. He tried to get it produced, and was unable to do so.  So he put

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

that play in his dresser drawer, and went on to write six major works. Eleven years after he had written the play, Frank Silvera heard of the play and took it out to California with Beah Richards starring in it. It then came to New York and had a very nice run, and then went to London, and now any city in the US which has a sizable Black community will now have the Amen Corner playing at least somewhere, some church or small theater.

There’s another writer who wrote a play. She was unable to get it produced, in the early 60s-mid 60s. She held on to the play and took it all over the country, holding on to it. And finally, it was done, in 1972. And then, when it was done, after having lived with it for eight years and not written anything else, then when it was done, she went on to write some more important things.

So I learned from Jim that when you are working on a piece, do everything you can for it. Make it as hot as possible. And when you’re finished with it, be finished with it.

K: In other words, he didn’t let his inability to get Amen Corner produced stop him from working.

M:  It didn’t stop him, nor did he hold on to the Amen Corner, as if that was all he had to do, you see? When I write a book, I give it a month. Miss Pearson, I work seriously. I mean, I am steady on it. And I’m smokin’. For a month. That’s it!  Unless something happens that I say, “Oh, well, okay. We’ll pick up later.” I’m going to work, for one month. I will do promotion, I will go about, I will be as charming, as honest as possible, and then, I’m going back to work on my next work. And Heart of a Woman has its life now, you see. That’s very important to learn for a young writer. Very. Because you write something and you say, “That’s mine.” It’s only yours while you’re working on it.

K: That’s interesting, because I always have the temptation to go back and re-work something.

M: There’s something else wanting to come. There’s something else. And it needs its, it needs its… It’s as if, you know, and this is so bad, because people always say this, and I flinch, because it’s not like having a child. But if it were, it would be as if the child is, the gestation period has been sufficient, but the mother doesn’t want the child to be delivered. And there’s another child, waiting, waiting, needing that gestation area, needing the whole place, you see, and the attention. So you see, that was one of the important things I learned.

The Harlem Writer’s Guild, of course, the writers encouraged and almost lacerated the writer to concentrate. On the work. To the exclusion of everything else. It makes for a very lonely life, but you’re able to develop that kind of concentration and ear.

(Here, I said that Killens had told me that after he published his novel Youngblood, he was very proud. But when he presented his next work to the Guild, the criticism was severe. He seemed appreciative.)

M: True. It was a severe group… people could actually be non-speakers, I mean not speaking to each other, for other reasons, you know, social reasons. Maybe’s somebody’s somebody was messing with somebody’s somebody, you know, and they would simply not be speaking.  But, you show up at the Writer’s Guild, and suspend all that, and join the work. And really say, when the person has done it, “you’ve done it.  I appreciate what you did with this character and the building of the plot, the situation and the prose.”  And then not speak, the same as when you walked in.

K: Would you have been the writer that you are today had it not been for the Guild?

M: No. No way.

K: Would you be a writer?

M: Yes, I would be a writer,  but I wouldn’t have the courage to be so mean to myself. To insist upon a kind of, as close as I can achieve it, trying to achieve a perfection of literature.

(For a few minutes we talked about her subsequent interactions with the Guild, which had dropped off after she started working more closely with her editor at Random House, and then she offered the offered the observation that writing, “is the most difficult thing, I think. I think it’s more difficult than singing, or acting or directing, or producing, or painting, any of these.”)

K: Why?

M: Because, in the other arts, whatever it is you do, the material you use are not materials that every human being uses every day. But every human being, who is not mute, and not a recluse, uses words. Wakes up saying, “hello,” “comment-ca va?” or “como esta usted?” or something, words. The writer now has to take these common things, and has to in some way arrange those nouns and pronouns and adjectives… and become more. And they’re frail little things to put the sense into and try to give it to somebody. Frail. They can never have the capacity to hold what you mean. No matter how good you are. And yet, that’s all you’ve got.

K: A singer might say that.

M: Yes, well, I say no. Because a singer might sing: (sings)

My dame has a lame tame crane,

My dame has a crane that is lame,

Oh say gentle Jane

Does a tame dame’s lame crane


Come home again?

Elizabethean. Not sounds we’re used to hearing every day. Not every human being here’s these particular rests and suspensions every day. Or (sings)

Don’t the moon look lonesome/ shinin’ through the trees? Don’t the moon…”

You don’t hear that every day.
A painter has oils and brush and canvas. A dancer has her body, costumes, and somebody else’s choreography, somebody else’s music. A writer — and I’m reporting, I’m not complaining. I’ve chosen that for myself. I accept it. And I love it.

K: The other night, you referred to the story of the slave for whom the price of freedom was too high. What did you mean w hen you said, “This is particularly important now?”

M: Oh well, I think that a large portion of Black Americans, and particularly in urban areas, have found not jobs so much as professions. And they identify themselves by this temporary condition of being a television interviewer, an ad writer on Madison Avenue. It’s extremely temporary, because a telephone call can remove that title. And too many, I’m afraid, would, if told that they could spend a little more energy or risk a little bit more and be free(er) – too many would say, ” I’ll wait till the price comes down.”  So that’s why.

K: Does the Black writer have a particular responsibility now?

M: Yes, I think so. Um, and I don’t think now more than any other time — just still. And that is true. I mean, one can look at Frederick Douglass, the time of Mr. Frederick Douglass, Mr. Martin Delany, and going back further, Mr. David Walker, in 1830, or back further, and look at Richard Allen, George Moses Horton, in the middle of the 19th century, or Jupiter Hammon, you know, and the responsibility hasn’t changed. Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme.

K: But you’re a star now. You’re successful.

M: So? Do I have less responsibility? No! More. It becomes greater, you see, to continue to be courageous and tell the truth, and to try to tell enough facts so that the material is documented. The facts of the times obscure the truth. So what I try to do is to get underneath. I tell enough facts so somebody can go to the public library and say, “Here it is, in black and white.” But that’s not the truth; that’s just some data. But go underneath, and admit what I saw, what I did, what I didn’t do, what I left undone, where I failed, where I succeeded, and all the fears.

I have a greater responsibility because some people, there are young people, who read my work not just for enjoyment, but for instruction. Then, the responsibility’s greater.  Most of my books are required reading in every university, every college in the country, in Black Studies, American Studies, English, sometimes Women’s Studies, Anthropology, Sociology. I have a responsibility to tell the truth and tell it better than I’ve told it so far, it seems to me.