BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company, going home with Maya Angelou.
MAYA ANGELOU: Is that all the size of the bridge? "We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the rear of the store." These little white kids would come in and call her Annie. It was terrifying that this great powerful woman, who was my protection, couldn't protect herself.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Maya Angelou’s death late this spring at 86 sent me back in time. We had first met in New York City 45 years ago, soon after she had published her phenomenal, best-selling memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." She was already a presence: civil rights activist, singer, dancer, songwriter.
But that first night, we discovered that we had both grown up in small, segregated towns just a hop, skip and jump from each other. So, we talked about my childhood in Marshall, Texas, and hers in Stamps, Arkansas. Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, she was sent to Stamps to live with her grandmother and hadn’t returned for years.
Let’s go back together, I said. She wouldn’t have it: too many demons, she said. A dozen years later, for a series on "Creativity," and searching for what it is in a person that touches the strings of that mysterious instrument, I called Maya and said, let’s go home, I want to meet those ghosts. This time she said yes. Here, as a simple act of remembrance, is a brief excerpt of that film, produced with my long-time colleague, David Grubin.
MAYA ANGELOU: "In my memory, Stamps is a place of light, shadow, sounds, and entrancing odors. The earth smell was pungent, spiced with the odor of cattle manure, the yellowish acid of the ponds and rivers, the deep pots of greens and beans cooking for hours with smoked or cured pork. Flowers added their heavy aroma. And above all, the atmosphere was pressed down with the smell of old fears, and hates, and guilt."
I am a writer and Stamps must remain for me in that nebulous, unreal reality, because I'm a poet and I have to draw from these shadows, these densities, these phantasm-- phantasmagorias for my poetry. I don’t want it to become a place on the map, because the truth is you never can leave home. You take it with you everywhere you go. It's under your skin. It moves the tongue or slows it, colors the thinking, impedes upon the logic. So, as I -- the time came for me to actually come to Stamps, I started to dread it. I started to really fear the ghosts who I was about to bestir.
Is that all the size of the bridge?
I was terribly hurt in this town and vastly loved.
BILL MOYERS: There really were two Stamps, weren't there?
MAYA ANGELOU: Oh, yes. It started, the black part of Stamps, started right there at that bridge.
BILL MOYERS: Where that fellow's fishing?
MAYA ANGELOU: Well, yes. There and behind us, at the railroad track. This was more or less no man’s land here, it seemed, because if you were black you never felt really safe when you simply crossed the railroad tracks. You still had to go all this way, it was like an international tarmac where anybody could get you. You were really in the black part of town when you crossed that little bridge and the pond. Then you were safe. Then if you didn’t know everybody, at least everybody knew who you were, you know. And as a child it was the chance to, to have some protection. And I used to have to walk over here. Oh gosh, I hated it. I had no protection at all over there. I had an idea of protection on this side. I had my grandmother on this side. I had the church, my uncle, and all my people were on this side. So I had an idea of protection, but there I would be all alone and I loathed it, crossing those railroad tracks. Bill, I tell you, to show you how much things don’t change, I’m not even going to cross it with you now. I don’t really, I really don’t – I’m not doing this for any reason other than I really do not want to go across there. I really don’t.
BILL MOYERS: I understand. So what are you thinking right now?
MAYA ANGELOU: You stay on my side, we’ll both be safe.
"We lived with our grandmother and uncle in the rear of the Store ... Until I was thirteen and left Arkansas for good, the Store was my favorite place to be. Alone and empty in the mornings, it looked like an unopened present from a stranger. Opening the front doors was pulling the ribbon off the unexpected gift."
All the whites who picked up cotton pickers would pick them up in front of our store and about dawn the wagons would come rolling in. We would open the store early so they could buy peanut patties, cans of sardines, hunks of cheese and take them out to the cotton fields. And then they would bring them back at dusk, just about dark. We would fold out of these wagons dead-tired, beat, but on Saturday, big day Saturday at the store, then the people would talk and they would be so sassy and then if a white person would come, they'd become meek and “Sure, yessir, that's right.” And you would see this thing that happened, this mask, or these masks, and Paul Laurence Dunbar helped me to understand that.
BILL MOYERS: With that poem?
MAYA ANGELOU: With the poem:
“We wear the mask that grins and lies, It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth myriad subtleties.
"Why should the world be over-wise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the masks.”
People used to come into the store and they’d say, “Oh, Sister Henderson, it’s just awful today. It’s just terrible. I can’t stand it. It’s killing me, this heat,” or this cold, and my grandmother would say, “Uh hum. Yes ma’am.” And as soon as the people would leave, she would call me and she’d say, “Sister, did you just hear that Sister Murphy said?” or “Brother Thompson said?” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” She turned and her eyes would get like stones. She’d say "Sister, there are people all over this planet who went to sleep last night when Sister Murphy went to sleep, who will never wake again. Their beds have become their cooling boards and their blankets have become their winding sheets and they would give anything for five minutes of what that person was complaining about."
Her contemporaries called her Sister Henderson, Mother Henderson, Mrs. Henderson. These little white kids would come in and call her Annie. That was worse than abusing me, you understand? It was terrifying that I could be so powerless that this great powerful woman, who was my protection, couldn't protect herself, nor could she protect her son, really, from this kind of violation, intrusion. For myself, for me, the white kids -- well, I fought them quite a lot.
BILL MOYERS: Physically?
MAYA ANGELOU: Physically, of course. I would hit a stone. I would hit a tree, of course. I had a rage that just, I kept in my teeth. As soon as one would look at me, I would hit him or her and quite often got beaten up, too, but I would hit anybody one time. And it wouldn't clear me of my rage and I could never get enough to get my rage out.
So, one of my fantasies when I was, oh, seven, six or seven, was that suddenly there'd be -- somebody would just say shazaam and I would be white and I wouldn't be looked at with such loathing when I walked in the white part of town, which I had to do. White men and women could look at you with such loathing that you really wished either that you could dry up, in a moment just shrivel up like that.
And instead of that, I'd put my head up and walk through, grit my teeth, survived it. But my God, what scars does that leave on somebody? I don't even dare examine it myself. And when I reached for the pen.
BILL MOYERS: To write?
MAYA ANGELOU: To write, I have to scrape it across those scars to sharpen that point. And yet I still have never yet really gone down to look at those scars. I would -- I would just think I might dissolve. They're very serious. They're very deep. The power of hate is almost as strong as the power of love. The best way, of course, for me to get out was through the music and the poetry. It wasn't so much a belief in God as it was the love of the music.
BILL MOYERS: The music in this church?
MAYA ANGELOU: Music in that church.
BILL MOYERS: What did that music say?
MAYA ANGELOU: Ah, well, there was a promise you see. Always in the black spiritual there is that promise that things are going to be better, by and by, now. Not at any recognizable date, but by and by things were going to be better. There was that and then there was this incredible poetry. Ah, which I don't know why I knew at the time that it was great poetry , but lines like, there's a line in a spiritual that always made me weep when I was about eight and the line is, "Green trees a'bendin', poor sinner stands a'tremblin' .” Now, it still does, Bill. It can bring tears to my eyes. That somehow listening to it, I transcended the pit.
I started reading early, very early. Every book in the library. I could actually be on the moors, followed by lovely, adoring and obedient dogs on my way to a house where I would sit and drink tea, whatever that was. I only heard of iced tea, you know, in the South. I never heard of anybody drinking hot tea.
BILL MOYERS: Much less moors!
MAYA ANGELOU: Moors and milk in the tea, but I would sit there and have tea. But those books allowed me, showed me doors, which led to degrees of freedom.
BILL MOYERS: What were some of the books?
MAYA ANGELOU: I loved Shakespeare.
BILL MOYERS: I think you wrote somewhere that Shakespeare was your first white love.
MAYA ANGELOU: That’s true. When I read Shakespeare and heard that music, I couldn’t believe it, that a white man could write so musically. Now, I already, mind you, had an affection for Poe, because I liked his rhythm. I liked: “Then, upon [that] velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking fancy unto fancy, thinking…” Marvelous. It’s rhythmic. Then, when I read Shakespeare, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,” I wept because I thought myself certainly in disgrace with fortune, being black and poor and female and in the South, and I was also out of grace with men’s eyes because I wasn’t pretty.
BILL MOYERS: You weren’t pretty.
MAYA ANGELOU: I weren’t pretty – I wasn’t pretty. Oh I was strange looking, although Mama told me I was pretty. And people admired her so much. She was the most powerful in the world. I thought at one time that, I – maybe I was the only person who knew it – but I knew she was God. She was straight and strong and kind and all that. And she adored me.
BILL MOYERS: So, many people here who touched you.
MAYA ANGELOU: Yes. There was one woman in particular -- there was one woman, Mrs. Flowers. Mrs. Flowers was the lady of Stamps. Well-to-do, she was very, very black and very, very beautiful. I thought she was -- she was pretty. Now that was a pretty woman and she seemed to me always to wear voile, which is an old cloth, old material, it's like a cotton chiffon, which waves. And she would wear talcum powder and there'd always be a little of the talcum on this pretty black skin.
And she spoke as softly as my grandmother. She'd walk up the road and pass going to her house. She had a summer house here.
One day she stopped and she talked a few minutes with my grandmother. My grandmother would come off the porch. And they would stand together and talk. So this day Mrs. Flowers said she wanted to invite me to her home. It was during the time when I couldn't talk and wouldn't talk.
BILL MOYERS: How old were you?
MAYA ANGELOU: I guess I was about eight, and Mama said, "Sister, Mrs. Flowers is inviting you to her home." Well, the beauty of the town, the most wonderful person in town to invite me, I couldn't believe it. It was just -- it was as if someone had said, "Here's a million dollars. Do anything you want with it." I followed her to her house and all the shades were drawn. It was very cool in there just like her, dark and cool. She raised the shades and she had already made these big tea cookies that we make in the South, anyway in Arkansas. Huge, flat things and they smell of vanilla and the house smelled of vanilla and she served me, which was very unusual because children usually serve the older. She served me.
I couldn't speak all the way up to her house, which must be a half-mile. And she gave me iced lemonade and then she sat down. And she said, "Now, Marguerite, I'm going to read a book to you. It's called "A Tale of Two Cities." This is the very way she talked. ''It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. '' I thought I had already seen that. In my house I'd had that book , but I didn't know it sounded like that. So, she read to me and then she told me that poetry was music written for the human voice. She must have told me that 50 times. Then she said, "Now, what I want you to do is I want you to try by yourself to say a poem." So, I'd get under my grandmother's bed -- she had a high bed, you know, the mattress was up high -- and I would get under the bed and try saying some of the poems out loud. I could hear them in my head, but to say them out loud. And finally it was through her and poetry that I began to talk.
BILL MOYERS: You said you would not talk?
MAYA ANGELOU: No.
BILL MOYERS: Why? What was it?
MAYA ANGELOU: Well, I had had a difficulty in St. Louis when I was seven-and-a-half. I had been raped and the person who had raped me was killed. I said he -- I called his name and he was killed. And I thought at the time that it was my voice that caused the man to be dead and so I just refused to put my voice out and put anybody else in danger.
BILL MOYERS: And Mrs. Flowers?
MAYA ANGELOU: Mrs. Flowers gave me back my voice.
BILL MOYERS: Not only did that little girl get her voice back, she would grow up to engage the world with it, giving us, as one admiring critic wrote, "the acute renderings of a woman's soul."
A few years after our visit to stamps, I persuaded her to join me in Texas for a conference on “Facing Evil.” Maya had a lot to say on the subject, as you’ll see on our second episode remembering this remarkable woman. I’ll see you here, next time.