In a Black History Month special, we remember the life and legacy of the legendary poet, playwright and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. For the first time, a documentary has chronicled her remarkable life. She was raped as a child and refused to speak for five years. She went on to become an accomplished singer and actress, then worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After King’s assassination, with encouragement by the author James Baldwin, Angelou penned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first of seven autobiographies. In 1993 she recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. We air highlights of Angelou’s work and speak to the co-producers and directors of the film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, as well as Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Black History Month special, as we remember the life and legacy of the legendary poet, playwright, civil rights activist, Maya Angelou. Now, for the first time, a documentary chronicles her remarkable life, beginning with her traumatic childhood. She was raped and refused to speak for five years. She went on to become an accomplished singer and actress, then worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. After King’s assassination, with encouragement by the author James Baldwin, Angelou penned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first of seven autobiographies. The book launched the phenomenal career for which she is known around the world as an award-winning author and people’s poet. Five years ago this week, President Obama bestowed upon her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The new documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, takes its title from one of Maya Angelou’s most beloved works.
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MAYA ANGELOU: You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
Just ’cause I walk as if I have oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like suns and like moons,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my sassiness upset you?
Don’t take it so hard
Just ’cause I laugh as if I have gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You can shoot me with your words,
You can cut me with your lies,
You can kill me with your hatefulness,
But just like life, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness offend you?
Oh, does it come as a surprise
That I dance as if I have diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past rooted in pain
A black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak miraculously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the hope and the dream of the slave.
And so, naturally, there I go rising.
AMY GOODMAN: Maya Angelou, reading from her poem “Still I Rise.” Surprisingly, Angelou has never been the subject of a feature-length documentary, until now. The new film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, offers insight into the iconic writer’s public and personal life through rare archival footage and in-depth interviews with Angelou and her friends, from rapper Common to Oprah to former President Bill Clinton.
Last month, during the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with the co-producers and directors of the film, Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, as well as Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson. I began by asking Rita for a thumbnail sketch of Maya Angelou’s life.
RITA COBURN WHACK: So, you have a person that’s born in 1928 in Stamps, Arkansas. By 1935, she goes to St. Louis, so she’s actually part of the Great Migration. By the time she goes to San Francisco in her teens and then leaves there and goes into – in the 1960s into New York –
AMY GOODMAN: But for a second, she’s being handed off between her grandmother, her mother.
RITA COBURN WHACK: She’s being handed off. I think the overarching thing that’s happened in her life is that she’s experienced a lot of rejection, she’s experienced abandonment, she’s experienced not being accepted, from that racism to even inside her home. And so, when we start the film with one of her quotes – “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated” – it sums up how she lived her life.
AMY GOODMAN: She was raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes, at seven.
AMY GOODMAN: She – at seven years old. She didn’t speak for the next five years?
RITA COBURN WHACK: She didn’t speak for the next five years. But she also says, when she decided to speak, she had a lot to say. But during those five years, she read. And that is one of the equalizers. And also, go back to the South, at a time when people carried themselves, blacks, with a certain comportment. They may have – there may have been poor people around, but for her, her family was not poor. Her grandmother owned a store and owned land. And so, she was educated from the moment she got there. So, in that five years, she’s reading Balzac, Guy de Maupassant. She’s reading the kind of work that would give her a college education from seven to 13, all of Shakespeare’s works. So she’s a self-educated person in a South that blacks held in esteem about education.
AMY GOODMAN: And how does she transfer that into – as she moves into adulthood, where does she head? You talk about her going to New York.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Well, when she goes, she has all of that background in her. It’s ingrained in her. And she also has, from Grandmother Henderson, religion, biblically based, classically taught. And then, from her mother, Vivian Baxter – Vivian Baxter’s family like more like a group of gangsters. I mean, they fought, they gambled. It was a fast life. So she has the street smarts, she has extraordinary intelligence, she has faith. And she ends up taking that and having the strength to go and try new things. So, it’s not like it came from nothing. It came from all of that together.
BOB HERCULES: And she – when she went to New York, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. And she had been writing, and she had run into Langston Hughes and John Killens. And they convinced her to move to New York in the late ’50s and join the Harlem Writers Guild, which was a very important thing for her, because then she was in a community of writers, and they could critique her work, and she could critique their work. And it really, in a way, changed her life and kind of set her on that path to become a writer, though she was still performing at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, even before she meets all these legendary figures, she had a child. She had a baby. Colin, you are her baby’s baby. You are Guy Johnson’s son, Colin. Talk about Maya Angelou as a young, single mother, the decisions she made, the stories you told in your family, how she ended up having your dad, Guy.
COLIN JOHNSON: Well, how and the first question are a little different. I would say that her as a young woman, I think she had this power and feeling inside of her that she had some work that was unaccomplished, but balancing that with being a mother. And I think that she was torn with the same decision that her mother and her parents actually made, as well, as to stay on a daily basis and be that parent or go off and live your life.
AMY GOODMAN: She was a teenage mom, right?
COLIN JOHNSON: Yeah, exactly, 17.
AMY GOODMAN: And she made a decision to have this baby alone.
COLIN JOHNSON: Right. I don’t know I would phrase it that way. I would say that her pride and the way that she was raised allowed her to walk out of a door with a young child in tow and brave the world. And I don’t know that it was a decision that was thought out from the very beginning to have the child. I think it was a series of events that just – as the rest of her life has played out, it’s just like, “I decided to have sex with this man, and a few months later I found out I was pregnant, and now we have to deal with that.” And her mother, my great-grandmother, was an amazingly powerful woman and basically said to her, “When you walk out of this door, don’t let anybody else let you feel like you haven’t been raised. You have been raised. You have all of the tools to go out and conquer the world,” which is an amazing statement to make to a young woman who had really very little formal education, but self-taught and really self-driven internally. So, I think that I just would use different words in the description of it.
AMY GOODMAN: Before being world-renowned as the poet and writer that she was, she was an actress, she was a calypso singer. Let’s go to 1957. Can you place this for us?
BOB HERCULES: Yeah, she was a singer, and she had somewhere along the way picked up calypso singing. She started out as a dancer and then became a singer. And somebody at one point had said to her, “You know, if you could do this calypso act, you could get paid a lot more money, and you could be in some of the better clubs in San Francisco.” And so she took that on and became a calypso singer. She ended up being in this movie, somewhat obscure movie, called Calypso Heat Wave, that came out in 1957. And, you know, her career was kind of launched as a performer. She had been playing in Vegas and doing all kinds of shows. And eventually she went to see a performance of Porgy and Bess in San Francisco. And one thing led to another, and they offered her a job of going on tour with Porgy and Bess, and she went all over the world with Porgy and Bess. It was amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, setting up this clip from this little-known part of Maya Angelou’s life, the time when she was a calypso singer, interspersed with her singing and performing, you have Diahann Carroll speaking.
BOB HERCULES: Yes, one of our favorite lines. Maya comes out, and Diahann Carroll says – she describes her. And the last thing she says: “No shoes.” And it always strikes me that was a detail that she caught.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Maya Angelou.
ANNOUNCER: Maya Angelou!
DIAHANN CARROLL: I talked some friends of mine into going to this little club, late ’50s. And what I remember is Maya making her entrance – very tall, very grand, no shoes.
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Mo and Joe run the candy store,
Tellin’ fortunes behind the door,
The cops grabbed Mo, and as Joe ran out…
DIAHANN CARROLL: That she was an original is certainly an understatement.
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Brother Mo, he began to shout,
Run Joe, hey the man’s at the door,
Run Joe, the man, he won’t let me go…
DON MARTIN: She was exact and refined with her movements. She was limbs. I mean, she was a beautiful Giacometti sculpture.
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] Run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, run Joe, ohh…
DON MARTIN: At the time, that was the trend in music – Afro-Caribbean, calypso. And Maya was known as “Miss Calypso.”
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] All is busy in the marketplace,
Makes me dizzy in the marketplace,
‘Tis a wonder to me to constantly see
All that happens in the marketplace.
That flower girl has an innocent face,
The most well read in the marketplace.
She’s a voodoo girl from dusk ’til dawn,
So cast a spell just for fun.
DON MARTIN: The voice was no great voice, but she knew how to use it.
MAYA ANGELOU: [singing] ‘Tis a wonder to me to constantly see
All that happens in the marketplace.
AMY GOODMAN: She was dancing, she was singing, and she was not wearing shoes, Rita.
RITA COBURN WHACK: No, I think there was this allure, even if you look at the liner notes. In the liner notes, they say that she came from some Caribbean country, because they wanted to just promote her as this dancer at this time. And that was important, and it moved her to another place, she – as she toured with the State Department. And this was huge. Many people had not been out of the country. But to be in a group of African Americans that then tour from – she was in – she was not only in France, where she met James Baldwin for the first time, but she was also in some of the African –
BOB HERCULES: She toured in Egypt –
RITA COBURN WHACK: In Egypt.
BOB HERCULES: – and all over the Mideast, in places that, you know, in those times, Americans would not have normally gone to. So it was a very interesting experience for her. And she picked up languages and picked up the culture, and it broadened her horizons tremendously.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, co-directors of the new film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. I spoke to them at the Sundance Film Festival along with Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson. When we come back, we’ll talk to them about Maya Angelou and Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X, and the effect of their assassinations on her life, and much more. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Run Joe” by Maya Angelou. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our look at a new documentary that debuted last month at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. It’s the first feature-length documentary to focus on the writer and poet. Maya Angelou was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Dr. King was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s birthday, April 4th. Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King would talk every year on that date. In 2006, Dr. Angelou spoke at Coretta Scott King’s funeral in Georgia.
MAYA ANGELOU: On those late nights when Coretta and I would talk, I would make her laugh. And she said that Martin King used to tell her, “You don’t laugh enough.” And there’s a recent book out about sisters in which she spoke about her blood sister. But at the end of her essay, she said, “I did have – I do have a chosen sister, Maya Angelou, who makes me laugh even when I don’t want to.” And it’s true. I told her some jokes only for no mixed company. Many times on those late evenings, she would say to me, “Sister, it shouldn’t be an either-or, should it? Peace and justice should belong to all people, everywhere, all the time. Isn’t that right?” And I said then, and I say now, “Coretta Scott King, you’re absolutely right. I do believe that peace and justice should belong to every person, everywhere, all the time.”
And those of us who gather here – principalities, presidents, senators – those of us who run great companies, who know something about being parents, who know something about being preachers and teachers, those of us, we owe something from this minute on, so that this gathering is not just another footnote on the pages of history. We owe something. I pledge to you, my sister, I will never cease. I mean to say, I want to see a better world. I mean to say, I want to see some peace somewhere. I mean to say, I want to see some honesty, some fair play. I want to see kindness and justice. This is what I want to see. And I want to see it through my eyes and through your eyes, Coretta Scott King. [singing] I open my mouth to the Lord, and I won’t turn back, no. I will go. I shall go. I’ll see what the end is going to be. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Maya Angelou speaking in 2006 at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Last month at the Sundance Film Festival, I sat down with Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, the producers and co-directors of the new documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, as well as Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about when she first met Dr. Martin Luther King and when she first met Malcolm X, who had such a profound effect on her life.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Well, Bayard Rustin had been with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and he was leaving. And he had been – Maya Angelou had become known, because in the early ’60s she had decided – once she heard him speak at Riverside Church, she had decided that they would – she would get together with a group of artists and that they would put on a play to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. So, she did that, and it was called Cabaret for Freedom. I believe it played at The Village Gate. And –
BOB HERCULES: It was something she did with Godfrey Cambridge.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Godfrey Cambridge –
BOB HERCULES: The two of them.
RITA COBURN WHACK: – and a number of actors at that time would get together for Martin Luther King. And one of her lines about that is, when she heard that he was talking about nonviolence, and she herself had suffered so much violence and herself been violated, it was like pouring water on a parched desert. She was ready for it. And so she became the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership, the Northern coordinator, which was really fundraising. And she was now an executive with that – with that organization and was raising funds. And he also reminded her of her brother, Bailey, who was very instrumental in her life, and so they formed a friendship.
AMY GOODMAN: She also was deeply affected by the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
BOB HERCULES: Yeah, we found an amazing clip of a protest at the United Nations in New York shortly after Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. And many people suspected it was CIA meddling that led to this assassination. And Maya and other activists at the time went down to the United Nations and held this protest, and they somehow got into the United Nations. And we have this amazing newsreel clip showing that actual event.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s astounding.
BOB HERCULES: Yeah.
RITA COBURN WHACK: And it was important to –
AMY GOODMAN: You have Adlai Stevenson.
BOB HERCULES: Adlai Stevenson was the U.N. –
RITA COBURN WHACK: Adlai Stevenson was at the desk. And –
BOB HERCULES: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: He was the U.N. ambassador, U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes, right. And Rosa Guy, who was with the writers, Harlem Writers Workshop, her sister at some point screamed, “Murderers!” And when that happened, there ensued a fight and a riot of sorts in the U.N. And when she told us that in Winston-Salem, we looked for the U.N. tapes, and we were able to find that particular tape.
AMY GOODMAN: The footage is amazing.
BOB HERCULES: It’s amazing.
RITA COBURN WHACK: And the place went up in –
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s – pandemonium breaks out.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes, yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then she goes outside, and there’s the protest in the streets.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Mm-hmm.
BOB HERCULES: Right. So there was a protest – the protest we show is not linked directly to that United Nations protest. But Guy Johnson talks about – it’s a protest about the freedom fighters who had been down in the South and had been abused, murdered in some cases.
AMY GOODMAN: The Freedom Riders?
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes.
BOB HERCULES: The Freedom Riders, excuse me. And so, Guy Johnson tells this amazing story of a protest that he and his mother were part of. And the police came in on horseback. It was very intimidating, as you can imagine. And so, the crowds parted, and they slowly were getting people away. But Maya Angelou and her son Guy held ground with about five other people.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Guy was a little afraid.
BOB HERCULES: He was terrified.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s looking to his mother at this point.
BOB HERCULES: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And he’s saying, “Ma, we’ve got to go.”
BOB HERCULES: “We’ve got to go.” And Maya held her ground and was not going to move.
AMY GOODMAN: More than that.
BOB HERCULES: And then she finally thought of something spontaneously. She took a hairpin and stuck it into one of the horses, the main horse. And the horses – it was mass pandemonium, and it defused the situation to a point –
AMY GOODMAN: Well, the horse rears up.
BOB HERCULES: Right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have the sergeant, who is riding her.
BOB HERCULES: Right.
RITA COBURN WHACK: And the sergeant falls. And then the people come back into the street, and they finish the march.
BOB HERCULES: Right.
RITA COBURN WHACK: And I think that one of the things that you see – and Colin and I have talked a lot about this – again, is the fearlessness. And her term there, which comes from Grandmother Henderson, is: “God and I are a majority.” And that’s where she got the no fear from, that we have to do what’s right. And protests were a part of her life for a very long time. We could not document all the protests, but she protested against apartheid. She protested for black men to have rights. She protested, and she would always say, “Don’t complain. Protest, but don’t complain.” And she held that to – to her days. She held that, that you should protest.
AMY GOODMAN: Malcolm X, Rita, can you talk about her meeting with Malcolm X and how he changed her life? In fact, ultimately, it’s the reason she came back to the United States.
RITA COBURN WHACK: When Maya Angelou, in the ’60s – I want to say ’61 or so – went to Egypt, went to Cairo, with Vus Make, her then-husband – and it was a kind of common-law husbandry. They were in Cairo, the relationship ended, and she went to Ghana. When she went to Ghana, Ghana was exciting. W. E. B. Du Bois was there. There’s a woman in the film, Alice Windom, who’s a sociologist now but was her roommate in Ghana. And they got together, and they found out that Malcolm X was coming. And Malcolm X wanted to get an African country to bring a charge of genocide against the United States. And all of the people from America who were there, the blacks from America, got together and supported him and talked with him and protested and went into the United Nations and went into the embassies to discuss this. And so, it was during that time that they met and talked about the ideologies that he had and became close. And they really became close. And Guy Johnson also had some time with Malcolm X. And so, for that amount of time, they spent that together. And she was, as you say, coming back to the United States to work with him.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did she hear that he was assassinated?
RITA COBURN WHACK: I believe she had a conversation when she came back to the United States from the airport. And then, by the time they were to get together, to actually get together, he had been assassinated. And someone told her to stay in her apartment. Had she seen the news? She said no. And they came over to deliver that information to her, because they knew that it would be devastating. And so, she never got to work with him when she came back to the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, three years later, Dr. King would be assassinated, as well. Dr. King was assassinated on Maya Angelou’s birthday, on April 4th.
BOB HERCULES: Right. That’s right. Dr. King was assassinated on her birthday. She was going to go back to work for Dr. King. He had – she had run into him at some kind of a rally or something, and he came up to her afterwards and said, “I want you to come back to work for me. I’ve got an important position for you,” basically going around the country for Operation Breadbasket, or – it was the poor people’s movement he was starting up. And so she agreed to do that, but she said, “I just need a little bit of time. I’m going to celebrate my birthday. I’m going to reconnect with some people.” And then April 4th happened, and he was assassinated just before she was going to go back to work for him. And it was absolutely devastating. She briefly went mute again. It just devastated her. But it did lead to something very positive, because –
AMY GOODMAN: And it was James Baldwin, right?
RITA COBURN WHACK: James Baldwin came.
BOB HERCULES: James Baldwin came over. James Baldwin was her mentor and best friend.
AMY GOODMAN: Started slamming on her door.
BOB HERCULES: Slamming on the door, saying, “You’ve got to” –
AMY GOODMAN: Say, “Open this door right now,” because she wasn’t coming out.
BOB HERCULES: She was not going to come out. She was –
AMY GOODMAN: She was silent, and she –
RITA COBURN WHACK: She had been home for about four or five days, and admittedly unkempt and not speaking. And he came, and he said, you know, some choice words about opening the door. And she let him in. And he said, “Shower, get ready, I’m going to take you out of here.” And when he did that, he took her to the home of the – Jules Feiffer was there. I believe Philip Roth was in this group. And they were all talking, and she began to tell stories of her childhood. And it was there that those stories were heard. And Judy Feiffer, Jules’ then-wife, called Bob Loomis at Random House and said, “You ought to hear the stories that this woman has.”
And I think one of my favorite stories, when she started talking, she said there was such racism in Stamps, Arkansas, that black people couldn’t eat vanilla ice cream. And so, everybody laughs, and then she begins to tell these stories. And they’re stories that she lived. And we’ve often heard this – so much has happened to her. And I feel like, well, welcome to world of blacks born in 1928 Jim Crow South and so on.
But she has done an – she did an amazing job of not only living through that history, documenting that history, participating in that history, and then it being so well documented. So one of the things that you have in this documentary is you have history from a black woman’s perspective, which is – you know, beyond Phillis Wheatley, it’s not what’s written down. We don’t have that. And so, this whole trajectory of which her life path was on was something that we had to dig and to follow and to try to embrace.
AMY GOODMAN: So, she writes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It comes out in ’69.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Soon after, Dr. Martin Luther King dies. She didn’t originally want to write it.
RITA COBURN WHACK: She didn’t want to do – she had – as open as she was, these were areas you didn’t know. And as Bob Loomis points out, today everybody writes a book. But back at that time, people that were relatively unknown didn’t write books about their lives. And so, she had to be convinced. And as Bob says, when she found out that it would be difficult, that’s when she thought, “Hmm, maybe I can do this.”
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.
MAYA ANGELOU: The writer has to take these most known things and put them together in such a way that a reader says, “I never thought of it that way before.” It’s a challenge. And I know many writers, and I’m one, who says, “Lord, are you sure you wanted me to do this?”
AMY GOODMAN: That’s from Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Now, this is one of many autobiographies, but it was her first.
RITA COBURN WHACK: It was her first, and there are seven.
AMY GOODMAN: And the response to this, the acclaim she received, was she surprised?
RITA COBURN WHACK: I think over time she was surprised. But also remember that when this book was first done, she talked about sexual abuse. We talk about that now, seriously, but more casually. When she talked about it, it was a taboo. People didn’t tell that something like this happened. So that book came out in 1969, and it was banned in many schools. And now it’s a course adoption in colleges and high schools all over the country. But given the time period, 1969, that was not the case.
AMY GOODMAN: She talked about rape. She talked about prostitution.
RITA COBURN WHACK: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was her philosophy in talking about all of this?
RITA COBURN WHACK: OK, so she talked about rape and sexual abuse in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, followed by – that took her to 16 and being pregnant. And Gather Together in My Name, the second one, takes you from 17 to 19, in which prostitution occurs. And we felt it was very important to put that into the film, because she wanted to make sure that people, as she said, could gather together in her name and not have this idea that they’d never done anything wrong, that she may have expected that she would be ostracized, but she talked to her family about it, talked to Guy about it, and said, “I’ve got to tell this, because I lived it.”
BOB HERCULES: And I think her point was that others would learn from this, and others could hear her voice and read these books and learn from that and be able to go on with their lives and not be stigmatized by some of the things that happened. So it was a powerful lesson.
AMY GOODMAN: Colin Johnson?
COLIN JOHNSON: Well, if you ask me, the philosophy – right? – and it kind of goes down, and she has an amazing way to kind of boil situations down – but is: “I am human. Nothing human can be foreign to me.” And so, as she received what other people’s actions were, she also gave of her own life and understood that people were going to be able to resonate, and it would be attainable to people, because they come from the same place, which is humankind.
AMY GOODMAN: Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson, along with Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, co-directors of the new film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. I spoke to them last month at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. We continue with the conversation in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: “Human Family” from Caged Bird Songs, Maya Angelou’s final album, which blended her words with contemporary hip-hop. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with this Black History Month special. Back in 1993, Dr. Maya Angelou recited her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
MAYA ANGELOU: Mr. President and Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Vice President and Mrs. Gore, and Americans everywhere:
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the Rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You, Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You, Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers – desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You, the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours – your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me,
The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
And into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
AMY GOODMAN: Maya Angelou, reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. This historic moment is chronicled in the new documentary, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, which debuted last month at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where I sat down with the film’s co-directors, Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules, as well as Maya Angelou’s grandson, Colin Johnson.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s jump way forward to the Clinton inauguration. Colin, were you there?
COLIN JOHNSON: I was. I was.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were you sitting?
COLIN JOHNSON: Right at the top.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this is –
COLIN JOHNSON: Next to Barbra Streisand and everybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: This is 23 years ago this month.
COLIN JOHNSON: Yeah, yes. Wow!
AMY GOODMAN: And this is when Maya Angelou recites the poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.”
COLIN JOHNSON: Yes.
MAYA ANGELOU: I was asked would I would consider writing a poem for President Clinton’s inauguration. And I said, “Yes.” Then I started to pray and ask everybody, little children, “What do you think?”
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
BILL CLINTON: That poem is kind of like an eternal gift to America. And it will read well 100 years from now.
AMY GOODMAN: As she read this, Colin, that’s Grandma up there.
COLIN JOHNSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: She’s the poet of the nation. What were your feelings?
COLIN JOHNSON: I mean, she had already surpassed pride, you know, years before that.
AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?
COLIN JOHNSON: I was in high school. I was 17. And really, I think it’s an interesting time to actually think about, because I think I had only really realized who she was at like 14. Right? We had been traveling. We were in London or something like that. And a woman like screamed. And I’m like – you know, we’re in a totally different country, and she’s amazed to meet my grandmother. And so, that really kind of brought it full circle. We had actually just come back from Ghana. I had gone to Ghana with her, as well, that – during that period of time, which was my first trip back to Ghana.
And, I mean, the amount of pride that you have in somebody that’s your grandmother, that has been selected by the leader of the free world to come and be part of this ceremony that brings them into an amazing presidential term, it’s hard to – it’s hard to imagine or hard to even put into words how big my heart is and how full my heart was at that moment, just to stand there, just to – just to see her do that. And then the words that came out of her mouth, I mean, it’s just transformative, is almost the only way to describe it – and the message and the feelings behind it. She did not speak without purpose, and she did not write without purpose. So when she stood up there, she had a message to deliver. And for those that were able to listen and attain it, I think that they were changed.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, you have a very unusual approach in this film of having Dr. Maya Angelou complete her own sentences in different time spans. And she’ll go from a conversation that you have with her to a speech that she’s giving, and it’s all in one sentence, a continuous sentence. Talk about how you pieced together this documentary about this remarkable woman’s life, but also what you were most amazed by.
BOB HERCULES: Well, you’re right, Amy. We had a wealth of archival material. One of my favorite scenes that illustrates what you were talking about is she’s talking about Porgy and Bess, and Alexander Smallens, the director of the show, said he wanted her to sing an aria, but she didn’t know an aria. So he said, “Well, surely, you must know a gospel, some kind of a, you know, something from the church.” And so she performs it. And the rest of the cast is actually jealous, because it’s such an amazing performance. And we cut back and forth of her singing it from a 1982 clip that Bill Moyers had done at Stamps, Arkansas, back in a church that she had attended, or she was there in 1982. And then we cut from her singing this piece to our present-day interview, and she is right in key. It’s an amazing moment for me, that she can, at this age, come right back to that. And so, you’re right. We were able to constantly go back and forth between the archival pieces we had to the present day. We were lucky enough to interview her about three times, three different settings, before she passed. So we had a lot of material to work with.
RITA COBURN WHACK: And it was a large body of work. And I remember when I first asked her would she do a documentary, she gave me a look of “Do you know what you’re asking?” And I didn’t quite know. But once she agreed to it, she was very helpful. And I remember, once, she called us up, and she said, “How’s it coming? You know I’m not getting any younger.” And so, she was very aware. But we also had to be aware that we were taking her back. She had done the books, and she could now just live her life. And we were asking her to come back and relive it again for us. And she did that, to the extent that she relived every scene. And I think it was cathartic for her. I really think it was good for her.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think Dr. Maya Angelou’s life tells us about American history, race and racism?
RITA COBURN WHACK: It is really – she would often quote James Baldwin: We’re in “these yet to be United States.” And that’s still a fact: We’re in these yet to be United States. Racism is alive and well. We must not be defeated by it, but we must protest, and we must be a part of getting rid of it to the extent that we can. And so, I think that she would be happy with the fact that we pulled this together in her honor, but we’re still saying the same things: You must not be defeated by this, but you must fight it.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Colin, what you learned from this woman who you shared with the world?
COLIN JOHNSON: I don’t – I’m not going to spend an hour telling you everything I’ve learned. What I will say is that she brought me to this moment. And she would tell me that I am the small – I’m the hand at the small of your back. I may let your stumble, but I will never let you fall. She has played a third parent role in my life, my entire life. And, you know, the sense of pride and the ability to walk out of the door knowing that I have this woman in my corner has allowed me to do many things. And I’m just so appreciative of Bob and Rita here to have put such heart into this project and to really care about it and to really nurture it to its full – to its completion. And I’m proud to be sitting next to them, and I’m proud of this documentary. It’s the first of my grandmother’s life. And it’s just an amazing step forward for people to learn about her.
AMY GOODMAN: Colin Johnson, the grandson of Dr. Maya Angelou, along with Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, co-directors of the new film, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. I spoke to them at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org.