Scholars will spend their entire careers and earn their doctorates studying the papers of writer and poet Maya Angelou now that they are housed in Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library. We were honored to speak with Ms. Angelou about this acquisition for the library to be officially announced Friday, October 29 at the Schomburg Center.
Our Time Press: Reading your letters was reminiscent of an older Harlem, of civility and dressing up to stroll on Sunday mornings. How has Harlem changed for you over the years?
Maya Angelou: There was great style in Harlem in the Fifties. I was so pleased to be there. Then I went away and traveled around the world and when I came back I found Harlem in disarray. People hated themselves and hated being there. And hated Harlem and abused it and abused themselves. It was so terrible. Now I’m back up in the Harlem of the Fifties where people have window boxes of flowers which means that people are house-proud. It’s amazing that people are sitting outside of restaurants, on the sidewalk, happy to be in Harlem. It’s a wonderful thing. And to have the Schomburg, the great repository of all information about African-Americans in our journey. It’s a delight to have a home in Harlem.
OTP: The letters from and to Malcolm X speaking about his ability to approach African leaders and the respect that his presence had and the difference that he could make. Could you tell us something about that?
Maya Angelou: There was a group of us in Ghana, we called ourselves “The Returnees.” There was Julian Mayfield, the wonderful African-American novelist and revolutionary, and Alice Windom, we were there because we wanted to be there. We wanted to bring about a new world. We were young and quite mad. It was a good time to be Black and to be coming from the U.S. to be Americans and to be in Africa. Malcolm, when he came, validated all our concerns and one of the things he wanted to do was use the Organization of African-American Unity, there was an Organization of African Unity and he wanted to start the Organization of African-American Unity, to take the plight of African-Americans to the United Nations and show how the brutality that was being foistered on us. The inheritance of slavery, of lynchings and all sorts of cruelty, how that really was a threat to world peace, not just to the United States. He was a knockout.
OTP: There seems to have been a network, an international support network among the Diaspora, is that so?
Maya Angelou: It’s true. Sometimes if you’ve ever seen a person who becomes a Catholic, they’re more Catholic than if they were born Catholic. As African-Americans we were supportive of our situation, but once we came to Africa, we became….
OTP: Purer than the Pope?
Maya Angelou: Absolutely.
OTP: Reading the drafts of your works written in longhand with the markups and cross-outs is a great privilege and much different than what happens today with computers. Do you still write in longhand?
Maya Angelou: I have a new book coming out December 14th, a second cookbook, it’s called Great Food, All Day Long and I’ve written it in longhand and it’s my 31st book. I’m blessed to have great secretaries who have been able to read my script. I have the long yellow legal pads.
OTP: (And also) any other scrap of paper that happened to have been around you.
Maya Angelou: You’re a funny man. It’s true. Sometimes if a great thought comes to you, and you’re not near a yellow legal pad, it might be the back of a bill from the telephone company but you have to write it down.
OTP: The collection you’re leaving at the Schomburg, this spans what period of time?
Maya Angelou: From when I was 9 years old until now, I’m eighty-two. The only thing is I gave a portion of my papers to my university here in North Carolina, Wake Forest. About 35 years ago I was living in California and I was in a fire zone. The fire approached my street. I called Wake Forest and asked if I could send my papers, would they keep them. They said not only would they keep them, they would send for them. And they kept my papers in the rare book zone without any attempt to try to own them. And in thanks and appreciation to them, I gave them all the papers I had accumulated from my work in theater, on Broadway and off-Broadway, in movies as the first Black female director-producer at 20th Century Fox.
OTP: What movie was that?
Maya Angelou: The last movie I directed was called Down in the Delta and it starred Wesley Snipes and Alfre Woodard.
OTP: I don’t know anything about that. I feel terrible.
Maya Angelou: You can’t know everything — you’re young yet. The materials included television, movies and theater I gave to Wake Forest to thank them for looking after my papers all that time. I gave them 14 boxes of accumulations and 300 boxes to the Schomburg.
OTP: This is amazing! For scholars investigating Baldwin, Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry…
Maya Angelou: …anything that happened in those years if you want to know what was happening in the United States. In the meantime, I gave to the Schomburg five letters that I owned of Booker T. Washington, two letters of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, letters of Frederick Douglass. I’ve given them sculpture by Selma Burke and a study of the works of Paul Robeson.
OTP: In these archives are the last 75 years of American culture. How do you see the next?
Maya Angelou: I have no idea. Can’t even begin to commence to start to think about that. I think that what we have to do, each of us, is be present in our time. We can’t undo history but if we’re present in our time, we’re going to influence the future.
If I’m of use, someone finds my work of use, and I hope life will be made a little easier. Some of the rough places be made smoother.
OTP: The last time I saw you was at the African Burial Ground dedication. Could you comment on that?
Maya Angelou: It’s important to remember that it was the Schomburg which saved the Burial Ground, which is what a great library is supposed to do. It records in respect and appreciation all that went before, that’s what the Schomburg does and has done under the chiefdom of Howard Dodson.
OTP: And before Mr. Dodson, there was Jean Hutson.
Maya Angelou: Yes, and not to take anything from her, but Dodson came in with a bigger dream to open up the library to everybody. Right away he offended some people because the library was asked to be of use tothe Muslims. He said yes ofcourse. “It is to be of use to the community. The Muslims and the priests,the Buddhists, the Baptists and the back sliders.”
OTP: Speaking of opening up, I remember you and Amiri Baraka dancing at midnight in celebration of Langston Hughes over the picturegraph of A Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Maya Angelou: Yes, it was reported as two of America’s great poets dancing an African traditional dance for Langston Hughes. I asked Amiri, “Were you dancing a traditional African dance?” He said, “I was doing the Jitterbug.”