Interview: Maya Angelou shares her wisdom

Dare to be courageous
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  September 14, 2010

FROM WITHIN "We are responsible for the essence in us."

Though poet, writer, performer, teacher, and director Maya Angelou has made several visits to Rhode Island over the past two decades, her words of wisdom are always pointed reminders to those who have heard her speak before and wake-up calls to those who haven’t. Day One will present “An Evening with Dr. Maya Angelou” on September 30 at 7 pm at the Providence Performing Arts Center.

Day One’s mission is for “hope, healing, and action” in the face of childhood sexual abuse — one in four girls and one in six boys will experience this. Dr. Angelou, 82, lived through a sexual assault when she was eight, and her vivid recounting of her childhood experiences in the acclaimed first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), has spurred on women and men to combat the scourge of sexual violence.

Her most recent book, Letter To My Daughter (2008), her 31st, is a collection of short essays directed to the women she has known and taught — “I’m a teacher who writes” — and to those whom she continues to teach. I spoke with Angelou from her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she has held the Reynolds Professorship in American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1981.

WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO INSPIRE COURAGE AND HOPE IN YOUNG PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE? There’s no one most effective way. You use everything — you show by how you are. You teach by the way you act. You encourage by making a wonderful pot of tea, pouring a good glass of wine, telling a joke. You might teach something by reading a poem to a friend or young person; you make a big pot of soup. Everything that you live and everything that you’re serious about should be in your everyday actions.

HOW DO WE MAKE PEOPLE WHO HAVE NOT BEEN VICTIMS UNDERSTAND AND SUPPORT THOSE WHO HAVE? Again, there’s no one way. People who are sympathetic or empathetic to their fellow man or fellow woman — it’s normal that they would automatically be concerned even if there isn’t sexual abuse going on in their home or their neighbors’ homes or in some strangers’ homes. This is why teachers and social workers are asked to inform the powers that be if they see a child with bruises or if they see a child who has changed her ways — she used to be positive, suddenly she’s absolutely un-positive or she used to be cheerful and suddenly she’s morose . . . then that tells the professor, teacher, or social worker that something has happened.

THERE’S A CHAPTER IN LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER ABOUT NEEDING TO STAND UP FOR OUR COUNTRY AND OURSELVES IN THE FACE OF PERSISTENT RACIAL AND RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE? COULD YOU COMMENT ON THAT? I comment on it all the time. We are responsible for the essence in us. If we are full of hate and polarization and racism, then we’re responsible for that. It’s not introduced from some alien from another planet. We are responsible for our lakes, forests, for our animals, but most particularly, we are responsible for and to each other.

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