The Teen Talking Circle Project

Linda Wolf met with Maya Angelou to talk with her about how she came to forgive and love herself, after having gone through so many dark moments of the soul in her own life. Portions of this interview were originally printed in In Context magazine, Issue #43.

Dr. Maya Angelou, author and professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, has been hailed as one of the great voices of contemporary literature.

Linda: There’s a girl in one of our groups who was molested by her father when she was young. She’s never told anyone, even her mother, and he is not hurting her now. She says that even though he is a small man and that what happened to her was a mild thing, she is still afraid of him.

Dr. Angelou: No, no, those are two mistakes. There is no “mild molestation” and no brute is ever small. The man or woman who is brutalizing somebody could be four foot tall, but the molester is never small and no molestation is ever mild. It attacks the very spirit. I can only say to her, “I feel with you,” because once one is molested it’s very hard to feel clean again. Very hard. I spent almost seven years not talking [after being raped]. So tell her you feel with her - not for her or to her but with her. And I would encourage her to get counseling as soon as possible.

Linda: After all you’ve been through, including being raped as a child, how did you continue to have good feelings for yourself, to like yourself?

Dr. Angelou: I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes - it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,” that’s all. So you say to people you think you may have injured, “I’m sorry,” and then you say to yourself, “I’m sorry.” If we hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you, when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thick or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

Linda: You’ve done a lot of things in your life that most people would judge as wrong. You’ve smoked pot, taken drugs, you were a madam for lesbian prostitutes, a teenage mom, a table dancer - you didn’t follow the straight and narrow. All these experiences gave you a rich life?

Dr. Angelou: Yes, but I wouldn’t suggest it for anybody. I mean, if you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home - wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it. I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? - never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name. Meaning that all those grown people, all those adults, all those parents and grandparents and teachers and preachers and rabbis and priests who lie to the children can gather together in my name and I will tell them the truth. Wherever you are, you have got to admit it and set about to make a change. That’s why I wrote that book. It’s the most painful book I’ve ever written.

Linda: Do you see hope for this world?

Dr. Angelou: Oh, yes

Linda: What do you tell young people who see nothing but the world falling apart?

Dr. Angelou: It seems terrible. There’s racism and sexism and ageism and all sorts of idiocies. But bad news is not news. We’ve had bad news as a species for a long time. We’ve had slavery and human sacrifice and the holocaust and brutalities of such measure. We can’t imagine what Attila the Hun did or the cruelties of the period when the church, the great Inquisition, sliced people open from their heads to their groin and gutted them. And women were burned at the stake and stoned to death, as were men. We can’t imagine it. Today we say, “Ah, how horrible.” But the truth is, we have had bad news a long time. Yet, amazingly, we have survived. And while on the one hand we have the brutes, the bigots, and the bullies, at the same time we have had men and women who dreamed great dreams. We’ve had Galileo and Aesop, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. DuBois. We’ve had Sholem Asch, and Shalom Aleichem - great dreamers. We’ve had women who stood alone, whether it was Harriet Tubman or Mother Jones. We’ve had Margaret Sanger. We’ve had women who have stood in the gap and said, “I’m here to try to save the world.” You have to think who we are. If you made a map five miles long and five miles wide of the universe, Earth would be smaller than a pin-head. I think it may have been Durant who said if you make a model the size of the Empire State Building, and flat on the top of the spire you put a postage stamp, the model would represent how long Earth has been here, the spire would represent how long life has been here, the thickness of the stamp would represent how long human beings have been here, and the thickness of the ink would represent how long we’ve been sentient. So we’re the newest group on this little blob of spit and sand. This is what young women and men should know. They should know that we are carnivorous, yet we have decided somehow not only to not eat our brothers and sisters, who may be delicious, but to accord them some rights and to try to love them and look after them. I don’t want young men and women looking around and saying, “Oh my God, oh mea culpa, it’s so awful.” It’s bad but it’s also good, and it’s up to each one of us to make it better. Every one of us. We deserve our future.

Linda: What advice do you have for girls?

Dr. Angelou: To laugh as much as possible, always laugh. It is the sweetest thing one can do for oneself and one’s fellow human being. When people see the laughing face, even if they’re jealous of it, their burden is lightened. But do it first for yourself. Laugh and dare to try to love somebody, starting with yourself.

Linda: It’s hard to love.

Dr. Angelou: It’s hard because people think they have something to lose and the truth is they have everything to gain in trying to love somebody. You must love yourself first, of course, and you must protect yourself when you can. Protect yourself so that nobody overrides you, overrules you, or steps on you. You say, “Just a minute, I’m worth everything, dear.” If you really realize that, you realize everybody else is worth everything. Everybody. Fat and thin and plain and pretty, white and black and rich and poor, thick and slow and brilliant. Everybody is worth everything. Start with yourself, though.