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Exclusive interview: Maya Angelou from earlier this month

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(Armstrong Williams, executive editor of American CurrentSee, interviewed renowned poet Maya Angelou on May 7 via telephone and May 9 at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C.)

Armstrong Williams: Dr. Angelou, is there anything in your life that you have yet to accomplish?

Maya Angelou: Oh, my goodness yes, I'm in progress. I'm just like you, I want to be a good human being. I'm doing my best, and I'm working at it. And I'm trying to be a Christian. I'm always amazed when people walk up to me and say, "I'm a Christian." I always think, "Already? You've already got it?" I'm working at it. And at my age I'll still be working at it at 96. If I'm here, I'll be trying to be a better human being, a better writer, a better friend and a better beloved.

What in your life over the decades has made you a better human being, that you can pass on to others?

I've learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself. When I forgive other people, I let them go, I free them from my ignorance. And as soon as I do, I feel lighter, brighter and better. I like that feeling, so I don't carry somebody else's mistreatment of me around as baggage. That's one thing that I've learned. I've learned to laugh, try to laugh as much as I cry. Yes I'm still practicing; I'm working at it.

What are your thoughts on Boko Haram and the kidnapping of the 200-plus Nigerian girls?

It's so sad, it is so very sad. It's sad for the girls, sad for the country, sad for the men — they don't know it, but this is harming them, so everybody is harmed. And nobody wins on this. And the parents, family members, fellow Nigerians all over the world, my Lord it's sad.

Does this tragic situation in Nigeria indicate that the world is becoming an unsafe place for our most vulnerable, or do you still see much progress, despite this savage behavior?

Oh yes, both! We're making progress, I'll tell you why, Mr. Williams. If we say we've made no progress, young men and women have to look at the history of the last 50-100 years and say: "You mean with the lives and deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Kennedys and Mahatma Gandhi, with their lives we haven't come any further? Oh, then there's no point in me trying because those people were larger than life." You see, you can't do that. You must say: "Yes, we have made some progress — and it's wonderful — because some people had courage enough to stand up to the vulgarity of racism and sexism and ageism, and enough to stand up to the vulgarity of apartheid and varying kinds of cruelties. However, we haven't gotten nearly far enough, and we need you young people to put your shoulders against the wheel and press."

Where do you place L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling in the same context?

Do you realize that even 25 years ago, had he done this there would be nothing, there would be a few heads turning maybe. But do you realize that this man has been banned? With all of his money and all of his history and the white skin which covers his whole body.

Does it perplex you that someone could live in this country for so long, accomplish some incredible feats, yet can still live with the mindset as if we were still in the 1800s?

Well, no, it doesn't perplex me; I just look and see how far we've come. And you must hear this, Mr. Williams. I've seen how far we've come, so I don't become disappointed and waylaid by my own ignorance. No, I say we have come far, this man is a throw-forward, that's all, not a throwback. There are many people like [Mr. Sterling] who in person would say, "I accept your award, and thank you for caring and thinking of me as an equal," but in private, if you could catch them on an iPad or Twitter or something, your ears would burn. So their ignorance is afoot, and it's not going away easily. You know Frederick Douglass said power has never been known to give up any of itself upon the simple request of it. You don't just walk up to power and say, "Give me some of yourself, please."

There is a tendency to group people based on the behavior of someone in their religion, gender, race, etc. Isn't it critical in 2014 to understand that Mr. Sterling is an individual and not an indictment of all NBA owners?

Well they tried to, they still do, and I mean there are millions of people who still put all blacks together, all Latinos, and all Asians, oh yes. And they will go on as long as ignorance is afoot, but I don't have to look at that, I mean I can do what I do, which is my calling. I can do what I do without being a party to that kind of ignorance. I'm not going to say all whites are fools, I'm not going to do that — I know better.

Oh well, Mr. Williams, I've written 30-some books, you realize that? But I mean you can go to the Internet and read about some of what I've done — and you still see Sterlings coming out of the woodwork.

How important is it seeing the world beyond your home, church and your country?

It's very important to know the neighbor next door and the people down the street and the people in another race. It's very important because you come to a statement that was made by Terence, and when you look in the encyclopedia under Terence you find besides his name in italics "Terentius Afer" in Latin, and it means Terence of Africa. This man said, "I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me" (Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto). Now, when you look at that and then look back at Terence, this African, a slave sold to a Roman senator, he was freed by that senator and became the most popular playwright in Rome. Five of his plays and that one statement have come down to us from 159 BC. This man not born white or free or with any chance, he thought, of becoming a citizen in the Rome of his day said, "I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me." Now, when you can do that, then that tells me that you have traveled far, either physically and/or mentally, spiritually, and geographically.

You have seen it: Oh, Chinese people laugh just as I do; Oh, the Jews will eat their food and enjoy it just as much as I do; Oh, the Muslims fall in love the way I do; and the Irish cry at the sadness just as much as I do, you see? So travel is very important.

It is amazing at age 86 how sharp and prolific your amazing brain is. How do you feed your brain? What is your secret?

Oh no, I'm very blessed. I've been given a wonderful machine, the brain, and I was also blessed by having a fabulous brother. He's the closest my family ever came to making a genius. I told you this once, you remind me of him. He was three years older than I and very short to me — I was 6 feet by the time I was fifteen, he was 17 and 5 foot 4 and a half or 5 foot 5, and he was a genius. He used to tell me, "Don't mind these people laughing at you because you don't talk, don't mind them, they're stupid, you're very intelligent, in fact you're smarter than anyone here, except me, of course." I was very blessed to have family and friends, but particularly family, who told me I was not only all right I was just right, so I believe that my brain is a good one, and it's lasting me very well. I'm grateful for that because at my age I have some of the forgetfulness but not much.

How have you learned over the years to deal with the passing of those that you loved deeply?

Mr. Williams, I don't know, I just pray a lot, but I tell you it's so hard, [losing] the friends I've had, not only because of my affection, my love, my emotional caring for them, but also because I've lost so many people that could validate what I had to say because she was there or he was there, and now I can't call them up and say, "Was that in Salt Lake City or was that in Chicago?" You see?

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