VIDEO: Dr. Maya Angelou Talks Education & More on MSNBC
Dr. Maya Angelou sat down for an exclusive interview with her former student turned educator and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry yesterday to talk about her life and accomplishments, the meaning of courage and the importance of education in forming one's identity. The interview, in two parts, can be viewed and embedded at the below links, and a transcript is also available. If used, kindly credit "Melissa Harris-Perry."
HARRIS-PERRY: Twenty-one years ago, as an undergraduate at Wake Forest University, I had the honor of being a student in the classroom of an American icon, Dr. Maya Angelou. And over the course of her 84 years, the little girl born as Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, raised in Stamps, Arkansas, evolved into the global Renaissance woman we all know as Maya Angelou. She had done it all -- novelist, poet, activist, teacher, singer, dancer, historian, actress, filmmaker, even the first black woman to conduct a streetcar in San Francisco. Her globally acclaimed first memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" added the life story of a black woman to the cannon of the great American novel. In her role at professor at Wake Forest University, she taught courses in literature, democracy, social action and all those who are familiar with her infinitely quotable wisdom can attest, the lessons she has to teach reach far beyond the classroom and into our very lives. And as I found out when I sat down with Dr. Angelou recently, in the living room of her Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home, her wisdom reaches into our understanding of modern-day American politics.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HARRIS-PERRY: So it`s been 20 years I think. I took your course as a sophomore here at Wake Forest. And I remember that one of key lessons was courage. And that courage is the most important virtue.
DR. Maya Angelou, AUTHOR, POET: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Because without it, nothing else can be practiced consistently.
ANGELOU: That`s right. Your memory is good, by the way.
HARRIS-PERRY: I have said it to myself over and over for 20 years. When you look at our current world, do we lack courage?
ANGELOU: Yes. We lack courage, particularly because we`re not wise enough to try to educate ourselves so that we really can develop courage. So we act like cowards. We sit in rooms where people use pejoratives, racial pejoratives or sexual pejoratives. There are people assaulting and beleaguering other people, Mexican, or Arab, or Jewish. We just sit there like numb skulls instead of taking up because whoever is being assailed, that`s you nit wit. So you should say excuse me, just a minute, I won`t sit in this room when people are being assailed. Those are human beings and I`m a human being. And so, I have to take up, for I must support this person. You say he`s too skinny, fat, thin, stupid, bad teeth. I mean, wait a minute. The statement is I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. And if you know that, then you have enough -- develop enough courage so that you can stand up for somebody and without -- maybe you don`t know it at the time, but you`re really standing up for yourself. It`s the human in you. It`s the kindness in you which allows you to be courageous. You develop courage in small ways. You say I will not be called this because I`m a woman. I`m not a B. Because I`m black, I`m not an N. Because I`m an American, I`m not a fool or a murderer. I`m not that. You have to develop ways so that you can take up for yourself and then you take up for someone else. And so sooner or later, you have enough courage to really stand up for the human race and say I`m a representative.
HARRIS-PERRY: You`ve also always said that words are things.
HARRIS-PERRY: They can harm or uplift. When I look at our current political environment, I feel lack of courage, I see us turning our opponents into enemies, and I see us using our words as weapons. Beyond the partisanship, beyond supporting this candidate or that, is there some lesson for a political world that we can gain?
ANGELOU: I don`t know how we can, after the fact, after the election, how we can look at each other with friendly eyes, having for all intents and purpose, cursed each other out and said that this person is not -- this person is a liar, a brute. This person is a fraud. And then the elections will take place and then we have to work together in the House of Representatives or in the Senate or in the supermarket. I think it`s fair and proper to say -- to explain your point of view and what you hope to achieve. That`s fair. But that doesn`t mean then that -- say of the other person who has another agenda that he`s a brute. Or she`s a terrible word. That`s stupid. What breaks my heart, Ms. Perry, Dr. Perry, what breaks my heart is to think what would our nation be like if we dared to be intelligent, if we dared to allow our intelligence to dictate our movements, our actions? What would -- can you imagine?
HARRIS-PERRY: Yes. (END VIDEOTAPE)
HARRIS-PERRY: Can you imagine? More from my interview with Dr. Maya Angelou tackling the issue of education is next.
One of the most memorable lessons taught to me by Dr. Maya Angelou is that words are things, they have power. If that`s true, the words of her name, Maya Angelou, are powerful indeed. In my talk with her, we talked about the magic of the name Maya Angelou and its ability to give new life to communities and to transform young lives.
ANGELOU: I don`t know that of 40 schools around the country named for me and libraries and homes and things, areas in cities, in Portland. In fact, in Harlem, areas named for me. People have been told, maybe if you name it for Maya Angelou, maybe the people will take it back and oppose their druthers, and the brutes. It`s a blessing to work hard and be given such kudos, such responsibility, such honor.
HARRIS-PERRY: But it`s more than that. That means your name -- you talk about words being things -- your name has actual power. If you name it for you, perhaps people will take it back.
ANGELOU: Yes. What we can do when we have built a name or when we`re building a name or when we`re just starting, the moment we understand -- oh, wait a minute, I can help somebody, just a minute. I can help somebody. Then you realize that that person that you`re speaking to and speaking of is in your lap, and needs you.
HARRIS-PERRY: There are four schools in Washington, D.C. named for you.
HARRIS-PERRY: It seems like 444 too few. One of them is especially for adjudicated youth.
ANGELOU: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Why is that important to you?
ANGELOU: It`s so important. When the larger society is saying, you`re nothing. I don`t have to consider you. Then -- they then begin to believe they`re nothing and worth nothing. And so, they become obese. They become cruel. They become criminal. They hold up liquor stores. I mean, they risk their lives and so that`s how they can only get into the school, supported or introduced by the probation officer or parole officer. The children come in. They have to be in school from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. And 8:00 at night, they don`t want to go home because home may be where the hurt is.
ANGELOU: So they stay in the school, and I'll just tell you wonderful story.
ANGELOU: I went up there, supporting this school, then the two young men, the two lawyers had a contest, how to name the school. I was sitting there. Dr. Dorothy Height and one of the founders said here`s a young woman who has earned the right to name the school. The young woman got up, she was not looking all that good and she had a piece of paper. She said, how are you going to name the school? She said, Maya Angelou, she's telling us to get up, get up. You know, she`s trying to make us do good and, you know, Maya Angelou been down low, she`s down lower than any of us. And now she`s up high. She`s way up over you white people. She`s up over it. I said what?
ANGELOU: That was 12 years ago. About four years ago in Philadelphia, a young woman came, she said Dr. Angelou, how are you? I said fine. She said, you don`t remember me. I said no. She said, my letter won the right to name your first school. I asked, you are -- she told me her name, and I said, what happened to you? She said, well I finished at the Maya Angelou school and then I took my first degree from Howard. And my second from Hampton. And I`m now working on my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. See? This young woman was just waiting to happen.
HARRIS-PERRY: She was just waiting to happen. That also perfectly describes exactly how I felt when I first met Dr. Angelou more than 20 years ago. And I am so grateful that she took the time to talk with me this week. Dr. Angelou and her lessons as a teacher will be on my mind next Sunday. I will be hosting a special edition of this show. It will be a student town hall as part of NBC`s education nation summit live from the New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan. To inform and guide this discussion, we will be collecting questions and ideas from students. You can send your ideas via Facebook, on Facebook.com/educationnation. And on Twitter @educationnation. Also students can upload YouTube videos for a series we`re calling my solution, by going to educationnation.com. Go ahead. And invite the students in your home to do that today. And be sure to tune in next Sunday at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.