A&U is saddened to hear of the passing of writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Revisit the wisdom she bestowed upon our readers in our January 2001 coverstory.
Rhyme & Reason
Poet Maya Angelou Tells Dann Dulin Why She Never Lets A Chance to Talk About AIDS Pass
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Tim Courtney
“Oh, my dear,” Maya Angelou says softly, “so many friends are dead. So many loved friends are dead because of AIDS. My mind just runs over the list which seems to be unending. It’s just a devastating dragon breathing flame that burns out whole neighborhoods, whole families.
“I think some people think that a person with AIDS is himself or herself the victim and so it all stops there. It is never so. It’s a little like marriage. Two people never marry, families marry, and friends marry. Suddenly there’s a community married. Well, when a person is ill and/or dies, so many people are lessened, families are crippled, and their full strength is not there anymore. So everybody hurts—the romantic partners and the business partners. When one person dies, everything has to be rearranged and you can never get it back. Whew, it affects everybody,” she says with a sigh. Her words hurl such emotional power, you feel like you’ve been hit in the stomach.
Mesmerized by this celebrated author’s deep, rich, commanding, and nurturing voice. I feel much like a child crouched at the hem of his mother’s dress as we chat comfortably in her homey office which, indeed, used to be her home some six years ago. The house is an expansive brick colonial estate embraced by tall, sprawling trees. Angelou has lived here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, since 1981, when she was asked to be the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.
A few minutes earlier I had arrived at this place and was warmly greeted by Angelou’s two super-efficient assistants, Ms. Berry and Ms. Burditte (Southern etiquette takes precedence and first names are not used). The office space is part living room, part dining room, and part storage area—possibly used as a bedroom at one time. The blue and gray striped wallpaper, designed to appear as flowing curtains, provides a bright and dizzying effect. Awards and honors grace the walls and a disco ball hangs in a corner (not in motion) complete with neon light, which was a gift. Off to one side, coffee and an ample array of pastries are neatly laid out atop a cherrywood table—true Southern hospitality. Angelou’s main headquarters, along with her assistants’ offices, are in the next room behind the closed door.
“Mr. Dulin, would you please stand when she enters and address her as Doctor?” asks Ms. Burditte, referring to Angelou, as I pour myself a cup of tea. Taken aback, I answer affirmatively, then query whether Angelou’s name is pronounced Ange-loo or Ange-low. It’s Ange-low. Before both assistants leave and return to their offices, I inquire about a bathroom. Once there, with some bemusement, I discover that the small, nondescript room contains a pair of luscious, pure white bath towels monogrammed in sunshine yellow with the name, Maya Angelou.
Returning to the office, I remember Clinton’s Inaugural in 1993, when Angelou introduced her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” (she is the second poet in U.S. history to have the honor of speaking at a Presidential Inaugural; Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s in 1961). The last stanza still sticks out in my mind:
Here, on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
And into your brother’s face,
And say simply
As I relive the emotional chills I felt watching her on television that day in 1993, the door opens and Angelou graciously enters, escorted by Ms. Burditte who makes introductions and then exits. Dr. Angelou’s radiant smile and shining spirit wash over me. No sooner are we introduced than she breaks into a spiritual. Feeling slightly in awe, I cannot remember the reason she began to sing. After the impromptu performance, Ms. Burditte peeks in and asks Angelou if she would like a glass of wine. “Since the sun’s over the yard’s arm, yes. Thank you,” Angelou replies. Ms. Burditte leaves. “That was an expression my grandfather used to say,” Angelou explains as she again beams that broad, reassuring grin.
Dr. Angelou is dressed in professional attire: and elegant three-piece powder blue pantsuit, a long, flowing gold necklace, and gold hoop earrings. Though stylishly garbed and majestic in stature, she unabashedly wears just a simple pair of swimming-pool-blue flip flops on her feet. Interesting. The contrasts in this Renaissance woman’s attire reveal the fascinating confluence of nobility and wisdom juxtaposed with her casual over-the-back-fence charm.
She settles into a club chair and, in passing, complains about the root canal that she had had done yesterday. Then she proceeds on to the subject of AIDS.
“I became aware of AIDS long before it was an epidemic. A friend of mine in New York had herpes, and we were talking about it. In an attempt to find out more about herpes, I went to the library, which I do with everything,” she explains. Her research turned up a mention of this new and mysterious immune deficiency ailment. She phoned her friend and asked him if he had heard about this. His reply: “I’ve heard something about it, but it isn’t anything we have to worry about.” She sums up, “It was that long ago.”
Angelou has lost many friends to AIDS. How does she deal with those losses? “I don’t know if I do really,” she says tenderly. “I’m
always about a second away from weeping. And my grandmother taught me to be very careful about crying. She said, ‘Sister, remember, the more you cry, the less you pee. And pee is much more important to your body functions…,'” she trails off laughing. “Then I married a paramount chief in West Africa whose motto was, ‘Royalty does not weep in the street.’ Over the years it’s been very rare to see me crying in public. But my tears are always a second away when I think of my friends who’ve died from AIDS.”
After these comments, immediately and unannounced, she recites from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX:
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste.
Then I can drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night….
Savoring every word, Angelou pauses a moment, then reflects with a lilt and hint of sadness: “It’s horrible. Some of these friends were so close and changed my life.” Whenever she is reminded of these people in public, she nods neatly. “But then I go to my room,” she reveals. “And I’m suffused with the tears of their absence from my life. And the pain they went through. That’s really”—she searches for a word—”shit. Excuse me. I’m not a cursing person, really. Usually I am okay without it. But with this, there’s hardly any word that better describes that which is of no use.” She sits forward and crosses her ankles. “And to find balance you have a synthetic leg made to stand in lieu of the one missing. But nothing does, of course.”
I study her guru-like face—so regal, yet so woman-next-door. Deeply focused, Angelou takes a tissue and wipes her brow of beads of sweat and continues. “I mean, those who think they aren’t affected by AIDS, are affected. Their lives are lessened. [For example] a choreographer in New York dies of AIDS and somebody in Tulsa, Oklahoma, might say, ‘I never knew anybody who had AIDS.’ But his or her life has been lessened because there was some art, dance, choreography that could have enriched their life but won’t now.” So they could say, ‘Well, I can’t miss something I never had.’ I’m sorry, but you can. You’re not as full and rich, and tall and big and juicy as you could have been because somebody died before [their] time.”
Moving on from death and speaking about passing to spirit, Angelou comments that she loves all the art and visuals that depict heaven. But when asked what she thinks happens after death, she replies: “That depends on what time of the day you ask me.” She smiles coquettishly, and we laugh. “I have see that if you take a drop fo water from the ocean and put it under a microscope you find everything that’s in the ocean is in that drop of water. Every element that’s a whale, or a crab, is in that drop of water. So I have a feeling that we come from the creator. The poet says ‘trailing wisps of glory’—and I think we go back to the creator. That’s my feeling. And we go back as a drop of water is returned to the ocean. And it mingles with something else and it comes out again.”
Her wisdom comes from deep soul searching. This American original has lived many lifetimes. She was raped at age eight by her mother’s beau. The man hung himself. She didn’t speak for five years. “I thought my voice killed the man. And so I refused to speak,” she has said in many interviews. She worked for a short time as a madam and a prostitute, became a mother at seventeen, and wove a blanket of experience as a waitress, actress, singer, playwright, director, and the editor of an Egyptian newspaper. She even taught dance in Tel Aviv and Rome.
In the 1960s, Angelou was asked by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the Northern Coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition, she was the first black woman admitted to Hollywood’s Directors Guild. Angelou speaks six languages, and is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards. She has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. What an accomplished life! Is there something she’d like to do that she hasn’t done yet? “Oh, my yes,” she says emphatically, with a twinkle in her ambrosial brown eyes. “There is the book I’ve yet to write, the poem I’ve yet to write, the meal I’ve yet to cook, the beloved friends I’ve yet to meet. There’s always something to do.”
As Angelou tastes her wine, I ask: “Why has the AIDS epidemic appeared at this point in history? She answers: “I think it’s human carelessness. I think it’s greed. Public health in this country. And because it was good and it didn’t call attention to itslf, we made light of it. The people said, ‘Cut the budget. Cut the budget.’ Is that dumb?” she asks as though she had a bad taste in her mouth. “Tuberculosis is on the rise, hepatitis is on the rise, mosquito virus, Ebola, and so on. If greed were not in it and if true intelligence—not intellect or education but true intelligence—were at the helm, we would not only see public health back in our country but we would be seroius about working with other countries. We are a global nation. Everybody from the barrio or the shacks of West Virginia, from the ghetto or Beverly Hills—everybody comes in contact with every bacteria and virus around.”
She sips her wine and returns to the question at hand. “I don’t read that the AIDS epidemic has any great spiritual ultrameaning from without. No, it’s our fault. We are a nation of reactors to action. We should have learned from the Boston Tea Party. In order to change an unfair tax on tea, people boarded cargo ships, took the tea, and spilled it into the Boston harbor. That taught those who were selling the tea a lesson. The merchants said, ‘Ooh, sorry, why didn’t you tell us?’ Apply that to AIDS research. When enough people stand up and say, ‘That will do,’ what will happen?”
Without missing a beat, she leans forward and continues. “Let me tell you something. I recently addressed a group of executives and filmmakers. They paid me a lot of money to speak to them.” She giggles. “After I greeted them, and told a joke, the group was feeling relaxed. Then I said, ‘You have to stop flooding the record market, the television, and the movie houses with filth. You know that.
You have to stop. I know that many of you will say, ‘We’re giving the people what they want.’ However, if there are 2,000 of you here, there are at least a hundred who are dying for a cigarette. But even in this building which you own, you can’t smoke. You can’t even smoke in the lobby. You have to go outside. Now, ten years ago, or maybe fifteen, the tobacco companies said, ‘We’re giving the people what they want. Not only do they want cigarettes, they’re addicted to nicotine.’ But somebody said, ‘That will do.’ Everyone thought you can’t break this multibillion dollar business.” She pauses for dramatic effect. “Oh?” she says wryly, with a sly and knowing glance. “But it happened because somebody said, ‘That will do,’ and meant it.” She straightens up a bit and cuddles back more into her chair. “Take that, I would suggest, as a lesson.”
Angelou summons Ms. Burditte, who pours more white wine into the long-stemmed frosted crystal glass.
Throughout our visit, when a question is asked, Angelou relates stories pertinent to the topic. It’s best to remain silent and allow her personal insights to flow naturally.
Now she continues: “People may say, ‘I want something,’ but they need to find out if they really want it. They need to ask: ‘Am I willing to do anything to get it?'” She recalls the time when she was fifteen and decided to become a San Francisco street car conductor. “I wanted the job because conductors wore uniforms and they had hats with bills and they had the money changer. Tick-tick-tick-qwik. It just looked ‘it’ to me,” she says. She went down to apply for the job, but the office workers wouldn’t give her an application.
She went home and her mother asked, “Do you know why they didn’t give you an application?”
Maya replied, “Yes, because I ‘m a Negro.” “That’s right,” said her mother. “But do you want it?”
“Yes, I want it.” Angelou replied.
“Do you really want it? Think about it,” said her mother.
“Yes!” said Angelou adamently.
“All right. You go down there tomorrow morning. You be there before the secretaries, go in with them, and ask for an application. When they don’t give it to you, sit down. Take a good book to read and sit there. I’ll give you money, so you can go to [a restaurant] and have a wonderful lunch. But don’t you leave until the office workers leave for lunch. And you be back there when they get back from lunch—if you want it.” Angelou imitates her mother with precise bravura.
Leaning forward as if preparing to tell a secret, Angelou goes on: “About the third day, I didn’t feel I wanted the job any more.” She says in a hushed tone, with an embarrassed, girlish voice, as if her mother were standing just a few feet away, “But I couldn’t tell my mom that. [Angelou pronounces ‘mom’ with an affectionate reverence and she elongates it so it sounds like ‘mawm’.] I sat there with the secretaries, with some of whom I had been in school. The clerks insulted me; they called me everything. Here’s this black girl sitting by herself reading the Russian writers—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gorky—and every day I’d go home shaking. My mother would hold me, hug me, kiss me, fix my favorite foods. She’d ask, ‘You still want it?’ I would shout, ‘Yes!’ aggressively and quickly to hide my true feelings.”
Finally an office worker did offer Angelou an application. When asked her age, Angelou lied and said she was ninteen. “I was six feet tall, and white people don’t know what black people’s ages are anyway,” she chuckles. And as employment experience she said she had been the chauffeur for a woman in the South named Mrs. Annie Henderson. “My grand mother!” she whispers, laughing. “I had hardly ever been in a car. I lied. I just lied like everything to get that job.”
About a week later, she was called to start the job. She was the first African-American streetcar conductor in San Francisco.
She got fitted for her uniform and began her shift at three in the morning. Her mother would wake her up, and draw her bath; Angelou would dress, and her mother would drive behind the streetcar, with a pistol on the car seat next to her, until it was daybreak. “She’d honk, throw me a kiss, say, ‘Bye, Baby,’ then drive off,” Angelou says wistfully.
“I tell that story to remind myself and all of us that if we really want something, we hardly sleep until we get it. I think if we understood the power of AIDS, not just to kill one person, but to desvastate a family, a community, a nation, then we would spend more time trying to get money for research and a cure.” She glances down, then looks up with a faint smile and says: “If we really wanted it.”
As our meeting concludes, I follow Angelou into her private office, which is splashed in colors of soothing peach and off-white. On her desk one of the secretaries has opened and displayed a note from Phyllis Diller, along with a mid-size painting Diller has done. The note is a thank you for Angelou’s contribution to Phyllis’s A&E Biography episode. The two had appeared on the famed Purple Onion in San Francisco back in the 1960s, where Angelou was a featured singer.
Sitting down at her desk, Angelou returns to her last thought about creating what we want. “We’re in the business of changing something all the time. I’m being changed even as I talk to you. My muscles are being changed, and my eyesight is being changed. The important thing is to be in love with the search for truth, not in love with a particular position. Be ready to give up any position at a moment’s notice. It is dangerous to find one way and call all the others false—’No, this is the way I am and I am only this,'” she says, mockingly. “I’m taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is—Already?”
The phone rings, and her secretaries begin to mill about—my time is up. Yet Agnelou isn’t quite finished. “Nobody is anything all the time. To be alive is to be in search and to realize ‘I’m in process,'” she says, her elbows resting on the desk with her hands folded. She looks at me intently. “We should never pass up a chance . This is my fourth interview out of five or six I will do today and in at least three of them I’ll say something about AIDS. Never let a chance pass. Never”
For more information about photographer Tim Courtney, visit: www.timcourtneyphotography.com.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.