In this exclusive interview, we spoke to Dr. Maya Angelou (a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist). We discuss the very fundamental question of why we write and explore the role of the written-word in culture, social change and the story of humanity itself.
Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, October 2012
"...Of all mankind’s manifold creations," wrote Guy Deutscher "...language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our material existence, but the advent of language is what made us human. Compared to language, all other inventions pale in significance, since everything we have ever achieved depends on language and originates from it. Without language, we could never have embarked on our ascent to unparalleled power over all other animals, and even over nature itself..."
For humanity, communication has been intrinsic to our very existence. Almost 40,000 years ago, man made his first impressions on the world- in the form of pictures in caves. These were the first in a line of innovations, culminating with the extraordinary achievement - the art of writing.
"...Each human being, according to his innate capacity, learns something as the days go on. He accumulates experience, to some extent he correlates it and interprets it. He becomes wiser as the years pass. And then he dies; and the complex neural mechanism, developed and refined so laboriously, disintegrates into dust. In primitive society, something of the gathered wisdom is passed on by word of mouth. Folklore is gathered and sagas are learned by rote; but progress by this means is very slow. The real turning point in human evolution came when some brilliant innovator in a given society conceived the idea of the written symbol; and the way was gradually opened for full transfer of human thought to coming generations. The thinker attained immortality; and the process of real psychological and social evolution was opened to mankind..." (Atwater et. al, American Journal of Public Health, Volume 38 April, 1948 Number 4)
Our consumption of the word is almost as profound as its creation. In 'A History of Reading', Steven Fischer explains that "Today’s white-collar worker spends more time reading than eating, drinking, grooming, travelling, socializing or on general entertainment and sport – that is, five to eight hours of each working day. (Only sleep appears to claim as much time.) The computer and Internet? Both are reading revolutions." He continues to explain that, "...reading embraces so much more than work or web. What music is to the spirit, reading is to the mind. Reading challenges, empowers, bewitches, enriches. We perceive little black marks on white paper or PC screen and they move us to tears, open up our lives to new insights and understandings, inspire us, organize our existences and connect us with all creation.... Surely there can be no greater wonder?"
So what is the role of the written word in human culture?
In this exclusive interview, we speak to Dr. Maya Angelou (a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist). We discuss the very fundamental question of why we write and explore the role of the written-word in culture, social change and the story of humanity itself.
Hailed as a global renaissance woman, Dr. Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014) was a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil rights activist. We interviewed her for this publication in October 2012.
As a teenager, Dr. Angelou’s love for the arts won her a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco’s Labor School. At 14, she dropped out to become San Francisco’s first African-American female cable car conductor.
In 1960, Dr. Angelou moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer. The next year, she moved to Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times. While in Ghana, she met with Malcolm X and, in 1964, returned to America to help him build his new Organization of African American Unity. Shortly after her arrival in the United States, Malcolm X was assassinated, and the organization dissolved. Soon after X's assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked Dr. Angelou to serve as Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. King's assassination, falling on her birthday in 1968, left her devastated.
With the guidance of her friend, the novelist James Baldwin, she began work on the book that would become I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published to international acclaim and enormous popular success. The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than 30 bestselling titles.
A trailblazer in film and television, Dr. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score for the 1972 film Georgia, Georgia. Her script, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She continues to appear on television and in films including the landmark television adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots (1977) and John Singleton's Poetic Justice (1993). In 1996, she directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta. In 2008, she composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante.
Dr. Angelou has served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, and has received 3 Grammy Awards. President Clinton requested that she compose a poem to read at his inauguration in 1993. Dr. Angelou's reading of her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning" was broadcast live around the world. Dr. Angelou has received over 30 honorary degrees and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
Q: Why do we write?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] We write for the same reason that we walk, talk, climb mountains or swim the oceans- because we can. We have some impulse within us that makes us want to explain ourselves to other human beings. That’s why we paint, that’s why we dare to love someone- because we have the impulse to explain who we are. Not just how tall we are, or thin… but who we are internally… perhaps even spiritually. There’s something, which impels us to show our inner-souls. The more courageous we are, the more we succeed in explaining what we know.
When a poet writes a line that immediately translates from a black person to a white person, from an old person to young… or when a rich person writes a line that a poor person can comprehend… that’s a success.
Q: What has been the role of the written word in social change?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] It’s interesting, but this made me think of an incident in the American revolution. There was a patriot named Patrick Henry. The soldiers of the time were poorly fed, poorly dressed, poorly clothed…. cold, wet and hungry. In order to keep their spirits up, Patrick Henry wrote inflammatory but beautifully eloquent lines. Since most of the soldiers were illiterate, he used to go up and down the rows of soldiers reciting these lines. One of them was, “…I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death…” His words aroused order in the fighting men and, for a while, made them forget their misery.
The written word, when it is really eloquent… when it doesn’t have to be parsed or taken apart… when it speaks from one flame to another, speaks to a dying flame… and re-invigorates… that’s when it’s powerful.
That’s true of all the passions- be they romantic, patriotic or otherwise…
The written word confirms that you really can be more than you feel yourself to be right there, in that moment.
When I was a young girl, I would read Shakespearian sonnets. At one point I thought Shakespeare was a Black Girl… a Black American Girl in the South. I had been sexually abused when I was young, and I stopped talking altogether from the time I was 7 till the time I was about 13. At the time, I thought everyone could look at me and see that a man had abused me, and that they thought I had liked it. I read, “…When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone bemoan my outcast state...” and it connected with me- and then teachers told me that Shakespeare was a white man?, …An English man?, ..That he lived four centuries earlier? I thought they couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about… no white man could know what I feel…
Q: What is the role of storytelling in our culture?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] We use it to encourage the new generation to understand something to allow them to step-forward without going back…. without to have to repeat everything. That’s the basis of folk tales such as Aesop’s fables.
The aim of storytelling is to get a message across, so the next generation can take on without having to go back repeating my mistakes… or the mistakes I let myself make, or was fooled into making.
Q: What have been the stories in your life that have shaped who you are today?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] The African American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson meant the earth to me, as did Charles Dickens. Where I grew up in the South, White People were called “white-folks” and it seemed to me that they were empty… that if you put your hand on one… it would go right through. And they were so mean and nasty. However… when I read Charles Dickens? I saw there were some kind ones. And little Oliver! I knew exactly what he was going through, he was my friend- he was white skinned, but nothing like the white-folk I was used to. One of the gifts to me from Dickens and European writers was to inform me that all White People were not evil and mean, and all of them didn’t hate me. That opened my eyes.
Young people who don’t read today, don’t know they’re not alone
Q: What is the role of poetry in culture?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] Poetry is written word, but it’s also music- so it has a double strength.
The written word, when in prose- has music within it- but it’s not as heavily endowed with it. If you listen to poetry when it’s spoken, you’re drawn in… There’s a magnetism that draws you to it, and that’s partly because of the music.
People also don’t stop to realise that the lyrics in the Beatle’s songs, in Blues and in spiritual music are all poetry. Young people say, “I don’t like poetry…” but they may love Elvis or Ray Charles, and they’re all poetry
Q: What makes a truly great piece of written word?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] The truth... It either tells the truth, or it’s not of very much use.
If it tells the truth… whether it’s Tolstoy writing it or Jermaine Greer, Tony Morrison or Langston Hughes… or even Confucius… If it tells a real truth, a human truth, then the old White Man who’s sitting on his porch in Savannah, Georgia- or the Asian Woman in San Francisco- or the rancher in Kansas can all say, “That’s the truth..”
Autobiography enchants me as a form. Years ago I was asked by an Editor in New York whether I would consider writing an autobiography. I said, “No, I’m a dramatist and a poet…” and he said, “…well, it’s just as well you don’t try- to make autobiography… to write it really well, and to make it of importance- is almost impossible…” My close friend- like a brother- was James Baldwin. I know that editor said to James, “Maya Angelou refuses to write, I don’t know what to do…” and James said, “…if you want Maya to do something, tell her she can’t do it…” Fifty years later, he still denies it.
Q: How does the written word sit alongside other forms of culture?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] The written word is the base of culture, the spine. The other limbs and torso that attach to the spine, still depend upon the spine.
Without the written word, there can be no other form of communication. One of the sadness’s I see today is young people who have no belief or faith in tomorrow. You see people who go from knowing nothing to believing nothing, and that’s very sad.
When people allow themselves no vocabulary with which to explain themselves to other people, and reduce their utterances to “yeah…”, “mmmhmm…”, “I dig…” It’s very sad. You cannot, then, explain the delicacies of existence and the nuances of the human mind.
Q: What is the role of the written word in youth culture?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] I don’t mean to look down on Facebook and the like, but somehow, because we have technology- and because the television and other hangers-on have arrived, it seems things have changed. Texting has entered into the psyche so thoroughly, that hundreds of people are being killed because they text while driving, and text while walking- and even walk into walls! It’s really sad.
I am not talking about throwing away technology. We have to build on our strengths, and use what we have that has proven to be of use, as fully as possible.
Youth are not without their heroes and sheroes. Sometimes, especially when you hear the statements and utterances of their heroes and sheroes? You wonder why they chose them…
I’m very blessed. I’m a six-foot tall African American woman, and when I go to the Stadia? 5,000 or 10,000 will pay to hear what I say. It’s a blessing. Just now, a producer from another programme told me that I have over 3,800,000 fans on Facebook, and most of those people are young. That tells me people are asking for something, they want something…. I try to tell them the truth, and hope it gets through.
I’m not the only one; there are lots and lots of people who care enough for young people to try and tell them the truth, and encourage them to strengthen themselves.
Q: What is the role of the written word in spirituality?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] There’s a spiritual, which to me, is one of the most telling in the history of the African American experience from slavery onwards and it goes, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home… a long way from home…” That’s a statement which could be understood by anybody. A person who’s been in slavery may compare it to their experience of being taken from their home, to another continent… but anyone can relate to it.
There is another poem by Burns, “The Slaves Lament” which talks of a lonely slave, who was home in Africa, and thrown onto the shores of Virginia. Burns was a man who never, I think, even went to London. He spent most of his time in Scotland- in his village. Yet he had heard enough about the world, and the pain of slavery, that he could (in his own mind) become a black slave and write that poem.
Q: Do you think writing must have an ethical or moral responsibility?
[Dr. Maya Angelou] I think that’s true for everybody… the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Everyone has a moral responsibility to the other human being.
You have to tell the truth in such a way that it can be seen and understood by another person, in another country… like Terence who said, “I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me….”
When you look in the Encyclopaedia you see him Publius Terentius Afer, known as Terence. He was an African slave, sold to a Roman senator- who was later freed by that senator. He became one of the most popular playwrites in Rome- without ever knowing that he would become a citizen of Rome in that time.
That statement and some of his plays, stand here today- having come from 154BC.
“I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me…”
In her book 'A Man Without Words', Susan Schaller describes how the eighteenth century French philosophers continually exercised speculation as to how much of human nature was "given" and native, and how much dependent on language and culture. Schaller (as a graduate student) encountered Ildefonso, a Mexican Indian who lived in the most unique form of isolation. He was born deaf, and had never been taught even the most basic language. She set herself the challenge to make contact with this man, and introduce him to language. The renowned neuroscientist Prof. Oliver Sacks noted that, "...the magnitude of this enterprise is hard to grasp- it is, indeed, almost literally beyond imagination' for Ildefonso not only lacked any language but lacked any idea of language: he had no conception, at first, of what Susan Schaller was trying to do, or of what other people, so mysteriously, 'did' between themselves..." Ildefonso had a yearning to communicate, a yearning to be more than just himself in isolation.
Prof Sacks picks out the moment Ildefonso picked up his first word ("cat"). "...suddenly he sat up, straight and rigid, his head back and his chin pointing forward. The whites of his eyes expanded as if in terror.... he broke through. he understood. he had forded the same river Helen Keller did at the water pump when she suddenly connected the water rushing over her hand with the word spelled into it... He had entered the universe of humanity, discovered the communion of minds. He now knew that he and a cat and the table all had names... he could see the prison where he had existed alone, shut out of the human race for twenty-seven years."
For most of us, the profound magnificence of language and the written-word are lost- in the same way we take for granted the complexity of consciousness, and of life itself. These 'phenomena' are ever-present, from our first moment on the earth, and it is only- perhaps- when stepping back that we may see their true stature.
Humanity is built on stories. Human experience itself is unique, each of us has only one statement we can say with absolute conviction.... "I Am". This statement may then be followed with a qualifier to reveal our nature... "I am a brother", "I am a son", "I am a writer"- but fundamentally, our assertion of existence, and the fact that a society exists to hear that assertion, qualifies that very existence itself to be part of life's greater narrative.
One cannot be human in isolation, and it is the story that connects us.