A Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou

A Phenomenal Woman

Playboy's Archive unearthed a priceless treasure: an unpublished Playboy Interview with Maya Angelou

Patrick Fraser/Contour RA/Getty Images

In 1999, former PLAYBOY editor Murray Fisher flew to the East Coast to speak with legendary American poet Maya Angelou. Their conversation, intended to be a Playboy Interview, never ran, the copy at some point misfiled and forgotten. Nearly 20 years after it took place, the dialogue was discovered by our archivists. Covering everything from religion to racism and, of course, writing, this remarkable piece of history is as relevant today as it was two decades ago. Novelist Edwidge Danticat introduces Fisher’s once lost, and thankfully now found, Playboy Interview with Maya Angelou. 



 

I first met Maya Angelou in print. I arrived in the United States from Haiti at the age of 12 and, after reading all the books by Haitian and French writers I could find at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, resolved to start reading in English. One afternoon, on a display table at the library entrance, I came across I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first book in Angelou’s multivolume autobiography. On its cover, a barefoot little black girl stood, completely lost in reading, in front of a modest wooden cabin that looked like the one where I had spent my childhood summers. Even before I cracked it open, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit in the author. 

Maya Angelou and I were born and raised in different countries during different eras, but we had much in common. She too had been left as a young girl in the care of relatives, in her case her grandmother in tiny Stamps, Arkansas, and in my case my aunt and uncle in Port-au-Prince. She too survived sexual abuse as a child, though her abuser was punished in a way that made her feel she should punish herself by not speaking from the ages of seven to 13. In Angelou’s silence, however, were planted the seeds of a powerful writing voice. She devoured great works of literature, from Thomas Wolfe to Gustave Flaubert to Charles Dickens and many others. When ­Angelou was 17 (having returned to her mother’s care a few years earlier), she had a baby, left home with her infant son and undertook an eclectic and extraordinary breadth of ­pursuits—dancer, madam, actor, civic organizer, playwright. She eventually flourished, blossoming not just as a nuanced and commanding writer but also an extraordinary orator. 

In person Maya Angelou was tall and ­elegant, looking every bit the regal aging dancer she was. She had a booming, musical voice that sounded as though she might break into song at any time. When I first heard her speak, at Brown University, where I was a graduate student, I wept as she described her childhood rape and how speaking about it had led her uncles to kill her attacker. I remember Angelou closing her ­remarks by reciting, as casually as she might say “Good morning,” a few lines from “Phenomenal Woman,” one of her seminal poems: “I’m a woman / Phenomenally. / Phenomenal woman / That’s me.” 

We met again a few years later, after my first novel was published. We were together on a panel about migration, and she reminded the audience of how her ancestors had been brought to America in the holds of slave ships, yet this diaspora had given the world the gift of beauty through jazz and other art forms. 

I would add to the list of gifts that African Americans have given the world Maya Angelou herself, who transformed her personal pain and the agony of her people into so many different artistic endeavors, including ­poetry, prose, song, dance and theater, as well as the movies she directed and acted in. Her abundant gifts to us continue in this “lost” interview, conducted in 1999 by ­Murray Fisher at Angelou’s sprawling North Carolina home. By that time, Angelou was well established in the literary firmament, having received countless honors, including being chosen to recite her poetry at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.   

Since Angelou’s death in May 2014 at the age of 86, I have occasionally wondered what she might say about certain recent events in the U.S. and around the world. What would she say, for example, about cell phone videos of black men, women and children having the police called on them for existing while black, or about the documented police and vigilante killings of innocent people of color, or about the election of Donald Trump and the false equivalencies made between peaceful protests and white supremacist marches? What would she say about the #MeToo movement, or the various threats to our environment and increasingly endangered planet?   

I don’t think it’s accidental that this inter­view has been discovered now, uncovered from deep inside a box of decades-old correspondence, writers’ contracts and expense reports. I believe that Maya Angelou wants to speak to us from the land of the ancestors and somehow managed, with her trademark eloquence, to convince those in charge of the great beyond to deliver her words to us.  

“Quite often one falls into the same role as the brute that you’re opposing. And I don’t want to do that,” she tells Fisher. “If I’m just one good guy and there are 5 billion bad guys, I still want to have the courage to be the good guy.” 

I can’t imagine better advice for the times we live in. From the distant and great ­unknown, Maya Angelou’s unwavering voice continues to guide us well.

PLAYBOY: As you’ve moved from one episode of your life to another, you seem to have taken on new personas with each chapter you were living. And yet somehow they manage to come out of a piece. 

ANGELOU: I suppose everybody’s life is really a living patchwork quilt. There are those who would like to think that their lives are long tapestries. The truth is that everybody’s life is a matter of happenstance, mis-happenstance, intention and accident, courage and cowardice. No matter how disparate the segments are, somehow it works as a quilt, the same way that colors in nature work graciously. Red, blue, orange, purple and yellow—nature throws it all out there and it works wonderfully.  

PLAYBOY: As you reflect on the pattern of your life and your accomplishments, what does it all add up to in your mind?

ANGELOU: It depends on what time of day I’m asked or if I’ve slept well the night before, read something that really pleased me or displeased me. Sometimes I agree with the preacher—vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And at other times I think I’ve been wonderfully blessed to be able to say something or write something, to live a certain way that makes life a little better for someone else. 

I’m writing a piece that will be sung by Miss Jessye Norman at Carnegie Hall in 2000. I’m writing the mature woman. Miss Toni Morrison has been asked to write the young woman, and Clarissa Estés has been asked to write the middle-aged woman. When I spoke with Miss Norman, I realized that what people think happens to the mature person is romance—that you think you know something, you’ve come to certain conclusions, deductions have been made and tested—but it’s just the opposite. I know for a fact that I know absolutely nothing now. And I feel more like a young person as I prepare for this next great adventure, which is life after death—or whatever it turns out to be. And so just as a 10-year-old is anxious and excited and avid and eager and wondering, so am I. 

I can’t really see the wisdom that people say I have. I’ve taken a lot of chances and I’ve come through. I’ve learned the hard way—if you go in the dark just beyond that tree, there’s a big hole. You can fall in that hole and break your ankle. I’ve done that, so I’ve learned how to fall without breaking my ankle. That’s simply the result of having lived and tried and missed and finally found my way. 

PLAYBOY: But it doesn’t feel like wisdom? 
To write a sentence so gracious it slips off the page, that’s it.
ANGELOU: It doesn’t to me. I’m so busy living, I haven’t yet come to the place where I feel like I know everything.

PLAYBOY: You have described yourself as “always talking about the human condition—about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive.”

ANGELOU: It’s amazing that we are able not only to survive but to do better than that. We endure and we thrive—with passion and compassion and humor and style. We are people to match the mountain.  

PLAYBOY: After all you’ve accomplished, all you’ve been through, what do you still want?  

ANGELOU: I want to laugh, and I would like a love in my life. But I don’t expect it. I’ve had it.  

I’d like to write better. I have the dream to write so well that a reader is 50 pages into a book of mine before he knows he’s reading. I think it was Nathaniel Hawthorne who said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” And it is. To write a sentence so gracious it slips off the page, that’s it. Some critics review my work by saying, “Maya Angelou is a natural writer.” Being a natural writer is much like being a natural open-heart surgeon. So what I have to do, and will spend the rest of my life doing, is trying to write the most graceful and gracious English ever. And whatever the story, my mode of telling it is through writing. It’s a good thing I love English. I just have to pray for the intelligence and courage to ask of it everything I want.

PLAYBOY: Have you thought about where your skills come from?  

ANGELOU: Well, for about six years, from when I was seven to 13, I was a mute. And I loved to hear people speak. I still do. I’ve heard things they said which were painful, but I’ve never heard a voice, a human voice, that didn’t please me—never. I used to think I could make my whole body an ear. And I could walk into a room and absorb sound. I’ve been able to speak 10, 11, 12 languages; I can get around in six or seven now. It’s really because I love to hear human beings talk and sing that I’ve listened so assiduously, and out of that came the love of language.  

PLAYBOY: Did you feel lonely growing up?  

ANGELOU: Yes. I still feel it. Living is lonely.  

PLAYBOY: How do you overcome it?  

ANGELOU: I don’t know if I really overcome it. I live with it. I get a book of poetry or walk around looking at paintings and sculpture, or listen to a little Ray Charles, or sometimes a little Chopin, maybe some country-and-western music. It lifts my heart and reminds me that I’m not out here alone, that there are other people just touching my shoulders who are just as lonely. And somehow I’m able to get up the next morning and start all over again.  
I won’t stay in a relationship that is not productive and kind and funny and supportive. I won’t live with that at any cost.
PLAYBOY: What do you feel was the effect of not having a father?

ANGELOU: Well, I can’t say, since I didn’t have one. I had my brother Bailey. He was very bright and he was my best friend. And I had Uncle Willie, my father’s brother.

PLAYBOY: Are you reminded of a husband’s absence now and then?  

ANGELOU: At first I guess I missed having a man to love, but now I’m not aware of it frequently. My life is very full and my responsibilities are many and my delight is plural, so I don’t think about it often. I’ve had somebody funny and mad, somebody who had his own life, and I had my own life. My last marriage ended in 1981, and I would have sworn that by 1984 or 1985 I would be amenable to some new approach. But I’ve met no one who caught my fancy. I’d rather be alone than involved in a relationship that doesn’t serve either me or a husband.  

PLAYBOY: Why do you think your relationships haven’t worked out?  

ANGELOU: I don’t know but that they have worked out—in what they were meant to be. I think my best marriage was my last marriage. And it was wonderful. We simply wore the marriage out.  

PLAYBOY: How would you like to spend the rest of your life?  

ANGELOU: Writing. I’m working on a book now and it’s being difficult, but it will turn. What I’ve been able to do with my life is take lemons and use them to make lemonade and lemon pie, lemon tarts, even lemon candies. This book is very hard. I have to deal with the death of Malcolm X, and I have to write about Martin. I’ve written that I was very close to breaking down. Now I have to write about Dr. King’s death. And out of those horrors I have to find…not a raison d’être, but maybe an answer to questions I’m not yet ready to face.  

PLAYBOY: How well did you know Dr. King?  

ANGELOU: I was the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and when Dr. King came to New York, I traveled with him to speak at different churches and congregations. I would not claim closeness. Friendliness, but not friendship.
PLAYBOY: What was the role of the black church in your early life?

ANGELOU: Well, I loved to see black people together. I really love the way black people look, so I’ve always enjoyed church, just to see the people. There’s a lady in peach and a man in a dark suit and a woman in white and then somebody else in purple and green, and all those colors against the colors of the skin tones still make me catch my breath. I love the music and I loved the poetry of the sermon and the poetry of the lyric. So the church was a gathering place and an artistic center. And as I began to become religious myself, I began to love the Lord for the beauty of the world he’s given us. So I loved the church. If I don’t go, it goes with me anyway.

PLAYBOY: Do you ever feel reluctant to continue writing about your deepest feelings?

ANGELOU: No. I wrote honestly about the end of my marriage in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. There are no real romantic relationships from which I learned anything or was able to teach anything. Nothing is supposed to last forever; I don’t spend a lot of time bemoaning that. I’m proud and happy for those who have those relationships. I look at them like new flowers coming up in a blanket of snow.

PLAYBOY: What’s something that you learned from your mother?

ANGELOU: One of the things my mom did for me, all those years ago, was to inform me that even life had no right to grapple me to the ground and put its knee in my throat. I won’t stay in a relationship that is not productive and kind and funny and supportive. I won’t. No, no. I won’t live with that at any cost.  

PLAYBOY: When you were growing up, you and Bailey seemed to be a family unto yourself.  

ANGELOU: When he was 13 he introduced me to Thomas Wolfe and Kenneth Patchen and Aldous Huxley. I give him a lot of credit for what I’d like to claim is my psychological balance, if not sanity. I was six foot. He was small and he was older than me, but very cute. He took a lot of ribbing, and people laughed at me. But he’d take me aside and whisper, “You know I’m smarter than you.” But I could talk to him better than anybody else.
You develop courage by doing the small things that take courage. Like not sitting in a room where racial pejoratives are used. Like not sitting in a room where gay people are being bashed. I won’t do it.
PLAYBOY: Looking through your life, you have more than enough reason to have developed a real distrust and hostility toward white people. But you don’t seem to have done that.  

ANGELOU: I thought that the white people in Stamps, my little village in Arkansas, were very different from the whites I read about in Dickens and de Maupassant and Flaubert; those were likable people. I understood that if they knew me, they’d like me a lot. And I loved Edgar Allan Poe at that time; I was crazy for Poe.
When I went back to live with my mom I was 13, and she had white friends and they were to be called Auntie and Uncle, as her black friends were called, and that seemed to me to be right. It didn’t strain my believability. I think that those trained attitudes of hate built upon differences are given to young people at somebody else’s whim and for someone else’s convenience. It doesn’t help the young person at all. Nobody in my family, even in the South, said you had to hate white folks.  

PLAYBOY: You seem to have made up your own rules about life as you went along.

ANGELOU: That’s very true. But I had a lot of encouragement, and I still do. Bailey and my mom really encouraged me to be bodacious. I think I would have let them down had I not been creative, and even when I made mistakes, nobody put me down for making them.

PLAYBOY: At a certain point, people who have been unlucky in love begin to blame themselves for making the wrong choices. You don’t do that.

ANGELOU: Not at all. I don’t know if I made any wrong choices. I’ve had some good times and some bad times, but that’s just what life is.

PLAYBOY: Have you at any point lived a life beset by fears?   

ANGELOU: Since I was about 20 I’ve been painfully aware that I was mortal. And I feared death.  

PLAYBOY: Why?   

ANGELOU: I don’t know. That was when my wisdom teeth grew in or something. I didn’t even know for the first six months or so that that’s what I was fearing. When I closed my eyes I could see incredible creatures. Creatures that don’t live anywhere except in my imagination—and I could hear sounds. I knew it was madness. I talked to my mom and to my brother, and it was Bailey who said, “What you’re really fearing is death.”   

PLAYBOY: Do you think he was right?  

ANGELOU: I know he was right. I realized this was the one promise that would not be broken. Once I got that clear in my mind, by the time I was 25, I could relax and live because I knew I could die and would. That was the end of the dread and the presence of fear in my life, like an uninvited armed guest sitting in my living room. Once I thought “No”—what a relief; now I don’t have to fear anything.  

PLAYBOY: How would you like things to go from here on?  ANGELOU: I’d like not to have this pain in my hip; that’s for openers. And closers too. I’d like to finish this book and to direct a couple more movies. I’d also like to continue developing my relationship with my grandson. And I’d like to see my son in better health.  
PLAYBOY: Three important women have helped shape your life—your grandma Annie Henderson; your mother, Vivian Baxter Johnson; and Mrs. Flowers. Could you talk a little bit about Mrs. Flowers?  
ANGELOU: Mrs. Flowers was the mother of two men from Arkansas—one leading doctor and one leading civil rights lawyer. She was so grand. She was very, very black, very beautiful and she spoke very softly. Mrs. Flowers spoke with great diction and great elocution. She would come to my grandmother’s store and say, “I will receive you this afternoon at five o’clock for tea cookies.” And I would go up there. My grandmother would take a pencil and a knife and cut a groove in the pencil, tie a string onto the pencil and then tie the other part of the string to the spindle of a nickel tablet. So that was my kit and that went in my skirt, and that’s how I made my way through life. When anybody asked me questions, I would write on this tablet.  PLAYBOY: That’s the period when you weren’t speaking?   ANGELOU: Yes. I would go up to Mrs. Flowers, and her house smelled like vanilla because she’d made tea cookies. She always had the curtains down, and it was so cozy, and she would read to me. I thought she was the grandest thing.  

PLAYBOY: You must have touched something inside her.  

ANGELOU: In the 1970s I met a black lady who led the children into the high school in Little Rock that caused Orval Faubus to act stupidly and gave Eisenhower a chance to send down the National Guard. This lady and I became friends. I was telling her about Mrs. Flowers, and she said, “I know her; she lives down the street from me.” So when she went back to Little Rock, she told Mrs. Flowers that she’d met me, and Mrs. Flowers wrote me a letter. She said, “Of course I remember you. I always knew you were going to do great things. And I remember your brother too.”

Each of us should always be ready to stand up for what is right. 
PLAYBOY: Tell us about your mother.

ANGELOU: My mother raised me and then she freed me. I remember when I was 17 and burning with rebellious passion, Vivian Baxter stood before me, a pretty yellow woman seven inches shorter than my six-foot bony frame. Her eyes were soft and her voice was brittle as she said, “You’re determined to leave. Your mind’s made up.” I was her daughter, so whatever independence I inherited from her had been increased by living with her and watching her for the past four years. She declared, “You’re leaving my house.”

I collected myself and said, “Yes. I found a room.”

“And you’re taking the baby?”

“Yes.”

She gave me a smile, half proud, half pitying. “All right. You’re a woman. You don’t have a husband, but you’ve got a three-month-old baby. I just want you to remember one thing. From the moment you leave this house, don’t let anybody raise you. Every time you get into a relationship, you will have to make concessions, compromises, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But keep in mind, Grandmother Henderson in Arkansas and I have given you every law you need to live by—follow what’s right. You’ve been raised.”

PLAYBOY: And since that time?

ANGELOU: More than 50 years have passed. During those years I have loved and lost, raised my son, set up a few households and walked away from many. I have taken life as my mother gave it to me on that strange graduation day all those decades ago. When I have extended myself beyond my reach and come toppling humpty-dumpty down on my face in full view of a scornful world, I have returned to my mother to be liberated by her one more time. 

PLAYBOY: It’s been said that you’ve followed your heart to many misadventures.  

ANGELOU: I have followed my love and had good times and crummy times. I’m very happy that I dared to love. One of the reasons older people are short-tempered and impatient with young people is that the older people didn’t enjoy themselves when they were young. So when they see a young person enjoying herself or himself, they say, “Sit down, shut up, go in the corner.” I feel just the opposite. I love to see young people enjoying themselves because I’ve really had a wonderful time myself.  

PLAYBOY: How do you see your role now in life? 

ANGELOU: I can answer you best with a wonderful spiritual, really a gospel song. [singingI want to live the life I sing about in my song /
I don’t want to go to church on Sunday /
Go out,  get drunk and talk about people on Monday / 
I want to live the life I sing about in my song I want to be present in my life. I want to be exactly what you see. That’s what I want to do. I want to combat evil.  

PLAYBOY: Like Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary”? 
ANGELOU: That’s a scary statement, “by any means necessary.” That’s as dangerous a statement as all grass is green, so everything that’s green is grass. A lot of people say, “Well, I’m brutally honest.” I mean, you don’t have to be brutal to be honest. What are you really telling me when you say “by any means necessary”? Quite often one falls into the same role as the brute that you’re opposing. And I don’t want to do that. 
I want to be in the good guy’s camp. And if I’m just one good guy, and there are 5 billion bad guys, I still want to have the courage to be the good guy. If I’m one voice crying in the wilderness, that’s what I want to do. As long as I live, I want to be the one to say, “Here am I.” Again, a gospel song. I’m amazed at black people who were in chains and yokes and had no right to move one inch beyond the prescribed area. “If the Lord wants somebody, here am I, send me, I will go.” I like that. It’s so brave and noble of heart. I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ll go. I’ll go.”  
PLAYBOY: What do you still want from life?  ANGELOU: I’m very keen to be a Christian. I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, “I’m a Christian.” I always think, Already? Really? It’s a lifetime pursuit. But as a Christian, I’d like to be hospitable and generous. And fair—not only fair but merciful and quick to forgive.  

PLAYBOY: Do you prefer living in the South to the North?  

ANGELOU: I love the rhythm of the South. I like the pace. I have an apartment in New York and I enjoy it because of my friends there, but New York is a big city, and you have to do it in your youth. I don’t have to do that again.  

PLAYBOY: Is there any adventure in life, any pursuit, that you haven’t tried?  

ANGELOU: Not that I wanted to, no. If you don’t take chances, you get to die anyway. Why die without first living? I’m sure life loves the liver. You’ve got to be willing to take chances. That takes courage. People think that’s something you’re born with or you’re not. That’s ridiculous; you develop it, just as you develop biceps and triceps. 

PLAYBOY: How would a person do that?   

ANGELOU: You develop courage by doing the small things that take courage. Like not sitting in a room where racial pejoratives are used. Like not sitting in a room where gay people are being bashed. I won’t do it. I just get up and leave.  

PLAYBOY: There’s no point confronting it or arguing?  

ANGELOU: Oh, sometimes. It depends on the situation. Sometimes you can say, “Hey, everybody,” and you knock heads together. Other times it doesn’t behoove you to do that, and you don’t even tell them why you’re leaving. Say, “I’m wanted in Bangkok in about three hours. So excuse me.”  

PLAYBOY: You once stood up to a group of racists back in Stamps.   

ANGELOU: Each of us should always be ready to stand up for what’s right. Whether it’s to a racist or somebody who looks down upon someone else because he’s poor or because he has no education.  

PLAYBOY: You have been everything from a madam to a streetcar conductor. Have you ever known anybody who has lived her life more fully than you have?   

ANGELOU: I didn’t know I had a choice.  

PLAYBOY: Do you feel that this is our only time around?  

ANGELOU: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I think this is a trip from which no traveler returns. And on the other hand I feel that I have come back—as something else.   

PLAYBOY: What could you come back as? You’ve tried everything.   

ANGELOU: Oh no, not everything. Stick around, though. I’m just getting started.  

Interview portion by Murray Fisher. From the Winter 2019 Playboy.

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