Wednesday, December 23, 2009

For Christmas, my interview with Maya Angelou: "All Human Beings Try to be Beautiful"

Key points:

- Teach tolerance
- Examine other cultures without fear
- Give every newborn a membership card to the UN

"Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining."

- Maya Angelou

I wrote this article while working at The Associated Press in San Francisco. It moved on the national wire on Sept. 13, 1995. I tweaked the version below just a teeny bit.

At the time, Angelou was promoting a new book of poems called "PHENOMENAL WOMAN” and had just read “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the United Nation’s 50th anniversary celebration.

This story was the second of two. The first I wrote on deadline about what I thought I was supposed to write about. This second I wrote between assignments later about a question close to my heart:
"What advice can you offer a mixed-race child struggling with his identity?" I was asking about my nephew, then 12.

Guess which story got more pickup. Yep, this one.
Lesson learned: Questions close to your heart yield the best stories. Sometimes what you’re “supposed” to do is wrong.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – If Maya Angelou could give children a single luminous insight to help them do their growing, she would deliver it gift-wrapped in poetry and wait for the children to fold back the words to reveal tolerance.

A sampling from Japanese haiku to American inner-city rap could show that “everybody loves flowers or everybody has some fear of the dark,” Angelou said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I would encourage the child to look at her/his world, at the people in their world, and to try to examine the cultures in their world without fear,” the poet said. “I would try to lead the children into seeing that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”

Author of 12 best-selling books, Angelou has consummated her reputation for wisdom, particularly regarding a child's emerging sense of identity in a fractious world. Now 66 [now 81], she wrote “I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings” about her childhood self-revulsion as a black girl growing up in 1930s Arkansas. By contrast, her newest book, “PHENOMENAL WOMAN, celebrates self-possessed women in maturity.

Her life speaks well to the history of racial tension in America. She protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, prospered on her own merits during the shift from Jim Crow laws to affirmative action, and journeyed to Africa and back only to discover that a person’s search for roots may have little to do with race after all.

“It’s the striving in itself that is delicious,” Angelou said, explaining her buoyancy amid adversity and pain.

It’s hard to decide if she thinks people survive and forge ahead because they are courageous, inspired or just downright bullheaded.

“We have to kill to eat, and eat to live – and yet we want it,” she said. “If we dare to love, we might be devastated – and yet we want it.”

“The contradiction is so intriguing that very few of us willingly give it up,” she said.

When Angelou speaks, one gets the sense that more of her attention goes into hearing her words than speaking them. She’s alert and listening as she produces the sounds. She enunciates slowly. Her facial expression subtly registers expectation, uncertainty and then something like satisfaction.

Her life story offers hope that even down-and-out youth can pick themselves up and realize dreams of their own making.

Angelou was 16, pregnant and unmarried when she watched ambassadors and diplomats file by on the sidewalk on their way into a San Francisco hotel 50 years ago to sign the United Nations charter. She remembers feeling too black, too female, too tall and too alone to think about following them inside.

But she was invited inside this summer for the anniversary celebration of the charter’s signing. Angelou read her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” on the same stage with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

A few days before the event, Angelou reflected on how far the “united nations” have come and how far they still have to go. She said children’s singing star Barney and Sesame Street’s Big Bird give her hope.

“I mean, look at today’s children loving a purple dinosaur who doesn’t look like anything raised in their homes. And a bird that is 10 feet tall and speaks with a very strange voice,” Angelou said.

"It’s rather natural to fear those things we don’t understand and those people who might look different from us,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s very easy for people to overcome.”

She suggested promoting world peace by giving every newborn a membership card to the United Nations.

“Just let them know they’re born a member, and that they have all the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining,” Angelou said.

Her solution includes showing children pictures of the human family’s varying forms of ornamentation: intricately scarred torsos in Central Africa, bamboo-pierced noses in the Amazon, tattooed biceps in San Francisco and diamond-studded earlobes in Paris.

“Let the child see that all human beings try to be beautiful,” Angelou said.