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?