Bill Moyers
August 14, 2014
Maya Angelou on Facing Evil

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Once again, we are remembering the author and poet Maya Angelou, who died three months ago at the age of 86.

At the time of her death, one of the cable news websites proclaimed that “a literary voice revered globally for her poetic command and her commitment to civil rights has fallen silent.” Well, not exactly. Because we’ll be hearing Maya Angelou’s voice for a long time to come. She left seven autobiographies, three books of essays, volumes of poetry and many recorded appearances on stage, television, and at public readings of her work. Here she is in 1993, reading her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” written for Bill Clinton’s first inauguration as president.


History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self […]

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope--
Good morning.

BILL MOYERS: We also have her readings of many other poems and the interviews she did over her long life, several of them with me.

Last week, you heard her as we walked together along the streets of the small, deeply segregated town in southwest Arkansas where she had lived with her grandmother on the black side of the railroad tracks.

MAYA ANGELOU in Creativity with Bill Moyers: 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…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 in Creativity with Bill Moyers: I understand. So what are you thinking right now?

MAYA ANGELOU in Creativity with Bill Moyers: You stay on my side, we’ll both be safe.

BILL MOYERS: Maya’s experience with racism and rape was one reason we would meet again a few years later. It was in the beautiful hill country of central Texas. The subject was anything but beautiful. Some people were trying to understand the horrors of our time – genocide, war, atrocities, violence next door and abuse at home. So they held a conference on “Facing Evil.” Its participants men and women like Maya grappling with the ugly graffiti left on the walls of the psyche. It’s hard to expunge, as Maya knew from experience. Here’s an excerpt.

MAYA ANGELOU: What happens when we, a group of very highly energized and reasonably intelligent human beings come together to talk about evil? What on earth do we unleash? Is this a Pandora's box? Once we open it and it comes out, are we sort of letting out an evil thing? I have trepidations about this conference; I don't know what we evoke by invoking the word evil. I don't know.

Throughout our nervous history, we have constructed pyramidic towers of evil, ofttimes in the name of good. Our greed, fear and lasciviousness have enabled us to murder our poets, who are ourselves, to castigate our priests, who are ourselves. The lists of our subversions of the good stretch from before recorded history to this moment. We drop our eyes at the mention of the bloody, torturous Inquisition. Our shoulders sag at the thoughts of African slaves lying spoon-­fashion in the filthy hatches of slave ships, and the subsequent auction blocks upon which were built great fortunes in our country. We tum our head in bitter shame at the remembrance of Dachau and the other gas ovens, where millions of ourselves were murdered by millions of ourselves. As soon as we are reminded of our actions, more often than not we spend incredible energy trying to forget what we've just been reminded of.

When I was seven and a half, I was raped. I won't say severely raped; all rape is severe. The rapist was a person very well known to my family. I was hospitalized. The rapist was let out of jail and was found dead that night, and the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death.

I was seven and a half. I thought that I had caused the man's death, because I had spoken his name. That was my seven-and-a-half-year-old logic. So I stopped talking, for five years.

Now, to show you again how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, 50 sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry-- never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling-- I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.

When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say. I listened to the black minister, I listened to the melody of the preachers, and I could tell when they would start up on that kind of thing, when you know they mean to take our souls straight to heaven, or whether they meant to dash us straight to hell, I understood it.

So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness, you see, in the sordida, I was saved. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

I'm obliged to tell you about an uncle of mine, Uncle Willie, in a little town, little Arkansas town not far from this site, about as large as this side of the room. My uncle raised me. I was sent to him when I was three, from California, and he and my grandmother owned the only black-owned store in the town. And he was obliged to work in the store, but he was severely crippled, so he needed me to help, and my brother. So at about four, he started us to learn to read and write and do our times tables. And he used to, in order to get me to do my times tables, he would take me behind my neck, my clothes, and stand me in front of a pot-bellied stove, and he would say, "N-n-now, s-s-sister, d-do your sixes." I did my sixes. I did sevenses. Even now, after an evening of copious libation, I can be awakened at eleven o'clock at night and asked, "Will you do your elevenses?" I do my elevenses with alacrity.

A few years ago my uncle died and I went to Little Rock, and was met by Miss Daisy Bates. She told me, "Girl, there's somebody who wants to meet you." I said I'd be glad to meet whoever. She says, "Good-looking man." I said, "Indeed, yeah, certainly." So that evening she brought a man over to the hotel, and he said, "I don't want to shake your hand, I want to hug you." And I agreed. He said, "You know, Willie has died in Stamps." Well, now, Stamps is very near to Texas, and Little Rock when I was growing up was as exotic as Cairo, Egypt, Buda and Pest. I mean, I couldn't-- this man knew where Stamps was, and my crippled uncle?

He said, "Because of your uncle Willie, I am who I am today." He said, "In the '20s I was the only child of a blind mother. Your uncle gave me a job in your store, made me love to learn, and taught me my times tables." I asked him how did he do that, he said, "He used to grab me right--". He said, "I guess you want to know who I am today." I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "I am Bussey, I am the vice-mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas," went on to become the first black mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas. He said, ''Now, when you get down to Stamps, look up-'' and he gave me the name of a lawyer. He said, "He's a good old boy, he will look after your property."

I went down expecting a middle-aged black man; a young white man leapt to his feet. He said, "Miss Angelou, I'm just delighted to meet you. You, why don't you understand, Mr. Bussey called me today, Mr. Bussey is the most powerful black man in the state of Arkansas, but more important than that, he's a noble man. Because of Mr. Bussey, I am who I am today." I said, "Let me sit down first." He said, "I was an only child of a blind mother, and when I was eleven years old, Mr. Bussey got hold to me and made me love to learn, and I'm now in the state legislature." That which lives after us; I look back at Uncle Willie. Crippled, black, poor, unexposed to the worlds of great ideas, who left for our generation and generations to come a legacy so rich. So I wrote a song for Miss Roberta Flack, you may have heard it, it says:

Willie was a man without fame
Hardly anybody knew his name.
Crippled and limping, always walking lame,
He said, “I keep on movin’
Movin’ just the same.”

Solitude was the climate in his head
Emptiness was the partner in his bed,
Pain echoed in the steps of his tread,
He said, “I keep on followin’
Where the others led.”

I may cry and I will die,
But my spirit is the soul of every spring,
Watch for me and you will see
That I’m present in the songs that children sing.

People called him “Uncle,” “Boy” and “Hey,”
Said, “You can’t live through this another day.”
Then, they waited to hear what he would say.
He said, “I’m living
In the games that children play.

“You may enter my sleep, people my dreams,
Threaten my early morning’s ease,
But I keep comin’ followin’ laughin’ cryin’,
I’m certain as a summer breeze.

“Look for me, ask for me,
My spirit is the surge of open seas.
Call for me, sing for me,
I’m the rustle in the autumn leaves.

“When the sun rises
I am the time.
When the children sing
I am the Rhyme.
Just look for me.”

We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily-- as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.

I have written a poem for a woman who rides a bus in New York City. She's a maid. She has two shopping bags. When the bus stops abruptly, she laughs; if the bus stops slowly, she laughs; if the bus picks up someone, she laughs; if the bus misses someone, she- ha, ha, ha. So I watched her for about nine months. I thought, mmm, uh-huh. Now, if you don't know black features you may think she's laughing, but she wasn't laughing. She was simply extending her lips and making a sound -ha, ha, ha, ha. I said, oh, I see. That's that survival apparatus. Now, let me write about that, to honor this woman, who helps us to survive. By her very survival. "Miss Rosie." "Through your destruction I stand up." So I used the poem with Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem, "Mask[s]," and my own poem, "For Old Black Men." Mr. Dunbar wrote "Mask[s]" in 1892.

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 with 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 mask.

We smile, but oh my [God,
Our tears] to thee from tortured souls arise.
[And we sing, "Hey, baby-bye,"]
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world think otherwise,
We wear the mask!

When I think about myself,
I almost laugh myself to death,
My life has been one great big joke,
A dance that's walked
A song was spoke,
I laugh so hard I almost choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.

My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the little children.

My fathers sit on benches,
their flesh count every plank,
the slats leave dents of darkness
deep in their withered flank.

And they nod like broken candles,
all waxed and burnt profound.
they say, "But sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round."

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
the chains and slavery’s coffles
the whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
that shred my fact and sound
they say, "But sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round."

They laugh to shield their crying,
they shuffled through their dreams
they stepped ’n fetched a country
and wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,
it could and did derive
from living on the ledge of death
They kept my race alive.

By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!


BILL MOYERS: Next week on Moyers & Company, the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz on tax reform as a key to American prosperity.

JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ: We already have a tax system that has contributed to making America the most unequal society of the advanced countries. That doesn’t have to be. We can have a tax system that can help create a fairer society. Only ask the people at the top to pay their fair share.

BILL MOYERS: At our website,, you’ll find more excerpts from my conversations with Maya Angelou. That’s at I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you here, next time.


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