A conversation with Maya Angelou

Renaissance woman speaks on Tyler Perry, Obama and ‘the sweet language’

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer


In remembrance of  author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928May 28, 2014)
This article was originally published in October 18, 2012 edition of the


Dr. Maya Angelou Photo by Dwight Carter
Dr. Maya Angelou
Photo by Dwight Carter


Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Dr. Maya Angelou is a renowned “renaissance woman” who as a teenager became San Francisco’s first Black female cable-car conductor, and worked with both Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


James Baldwin helped guide her toward working on what would become her first of over 30 best-selling books. A three-time Grammy winner, she also has written for the stage, screen and television, and her poetry is legendary.


Last week, Dr. Angelou (MA) called the MSR from her home and talked about her life present and future. Following are excerpts from that conversation.


MSR: What is one thing you haven’t accomplished yet?

MA: I am working on trying to be and wanting to be a Christian. I’m not trying to be a Muslim or a Buddhist, or a Jew. It’s not something you achieve and then sit back and rub your hands together, and say, “I got it.”

I’m always amazed when people come up to me and say, “I’m a Christian.” I say, “Already? How did you get done with it?” I’m working at being a good human being. I learned to forgive myself and even ask for forgiveness of anyone I may have offended. Then try to be better the next day.

MSR: The scene with you and Cicely Tyson in Madea’s Family Reunion — was it scripted or impromptu?

MA: Tyler Perry [wrote the script] — I added some of my own. When he called me, I had seen Diary of a Mad Black Woman. When he called me and said, “I am Tyler Perry,” I said, “Yes.” When he tried to ask [me] to be in the movie, I said, “Yes. I’m telling you yes whatever it is.”

I’m so glad I did. He is really a genius, so it was easy to work with him.

MSR: In the movie, both you and Tyson stressed the importance of family and honor, your heritage. Is that a message lost on the current generation of Blacks?

MA: We dropped the ball in the [19]50s and the ’60s. Somehow with integration, some of our people thought it was all over now but the shouting. We don’t have to tell the children what I was told, and people of my generation and others who came after me. We were told the whole race is counting on you. Everything you do is important. We need you — you’re the best there is.

But somehow around the ’60s, we let the kids think to “Shoot your best shot — you don’t have to do that. If you do that, you would be sounding White.” That is stupid.

Everybody ought to be able to speak at least one language perfectly. I think we all ought to speak two [languages], African Americans in particular. We should speak the Standard English so we can describe…something having to do with mathematics and algebra.

We need to have the Standard English and then we need to have what I call the sweet language. It’s the language you speak in the bedroom and in the kitchen. Where you drop the “g” off the verb, and put in all sorts of “honey,” “sugar,” “sweetness,” “Oh, girl” and “man.” We should be able to speak both these equally, translate and go from one to another without a heartbeat.

MSR: You’ve seen America elect its first Black president four years ago. What is your assessment of President Barack Obama?

MA: I think a number of Black people, and even President Obama himself, did not expect the hostility and resistance he encountered once he was there. I believe that the day he was elected, there are some people who dug their heels on the ground and said, “I will not support him no matter how good his plans are for my country.” And so when he said he hoped to increase the jobs, diminish unemployment and reduce the [national] debt, he believed that, and he could’ve done it. But there are those who refused to support him.

MSR: What about the criticism President Obama has received from some Blacks?

MA: They thought by him just being there — that he has a magic wand — he could bring all this goodness to pass. It is not like that. Racism is alive and really unwell in our country.

MSR: You earlier talked about saying yes without hesitation to Tyler Perry. What makes you say no as quickly?

MA: If it offends the human being, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. In fact, I protest; I don’t complain, but I won’t offend any [person]. I protest against unkindness and cruelty, but I will not be a party to belittling any human being.

MSR: What do you like about the Twin Cities?

MA: I like the people. The people I’ve met there are A-number one.

MSR: Is the word “retirement” in your vocabulary?

MA: Anybody who can’t be at use is useless. I like to continue to be valuable — I want to be of use. I won’t be abused or misused, but I will be of use.

At 90, I want people to still call me and ask for me. I believe I’ve been put on this earth by the Creator to do something, and I want to do it. I don’t do this as a career; I think of it as a calling.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman @ spokesman-recorder.com.



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