MAYA ANGELOU: A GRANDSON REFLECTS

March 01, 2019 at 5:00 am

The civil rights icon’s grandson joins us with intimate memories of the woman who became an American treasure.

Aired on February 28, 2019.

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>>> PBS CONTINUES ITS MONTH-LONG
CELEBRATION OF BLACK HISTORY
MONTH.
WITH OUR LOOK AT DR. MAYA
ANGELOU, AN AMERICAN ICON.
WHEN MOST OF US THINK OF DR.
MAYA ANGELOU, WHO PASSED AWAY
FOUR YEARS AGO, WE LIKELY THINK
OF "I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD
SINGS" HER POWERFUL 1969 MEMOIR
OF HER CHILDHOOD GROWING UP POOR
AND BLACK IN A SEGREGATED SMALL
TOWN IN ARKANSAS.
BUT SHE LEFT US WITH SO MUCH
MORE.
SHE WAS THE FIRST
AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND FIRST WOMAN
POET TO SPEAK AT A PRESIDENTIAL
INAUGURATION IN 1993.
SHE WAS A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST.
AWARDED THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL
OF FREEDOM.
ALSO A SINGER.
DANCER.
AND AN ACTRESS.
A DOCUMENTARY ON PBS'S AMERICAN
MASTERS ABOUT HER INCREDIBLE
LIFE, MAYA ANGELOU, AND STILL I
RICE, REVEALS SO MUCH MORE ABOUT
THIS WOMAN WHO BECAME AN
AMERICAN IN OPERATION.
LE
INSPIRATION.
LET'S TAKE A LOOK.
>> THE WRITER HAS TO TAKE THESE
MOST KNOWN THINGS, AND PUT THEM
TOGETHER IN SUCH A WAY THAT A
READER, WOULD HAVE NEVER THOUGHT
ABOUT IT THAT WAY BEFORE.
MY MOTHER'S BOYFRIEND RAPED ME.
I WAS SEVEN.
SO I STOPPED SPEAKING.
FOR FIVE YEARS.
IN THOSE FIVE YEARS, I READ
EVERY BOOK IN THE BLACK SCHOOL
LIBRARY.
WHEN I DECIDED TO SPEAK, I HAD A
LOT TO SAY.
>> MAYA WAS A DANCER.
SHE SANG, SHE WAS AN ACTRESS,
SHE WAS A BEAUTIFUL SCULPTOR.
OF COURSE, SHE WAS A WRITER.
>> WHEN I REACHED FOR THE PEN,
TO WRITE, I HAVE TO SCRAPE IT
ACROSS THOSE SCARS.
>> MAYA WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR
TEACHING ME WHY I SHOULD KNOW
MORE ABOUT MY ROOTS.
I REMEMBER HER BEING VERY ANGRY,
VERY ANGRY, MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME
A LOVE OF JUSTICE, A LOVE OF
WHAT IS DOING WHAT'S RIGHT.
>> I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD
SANG, IT WAS A VERY IMPORTANT
LITERARY FEAT.
>> CAGED BIRD WAS REALLY ALMOST
ANOTHER BIBLE FOR ME.
>> IT WAS THE OPENING FOR ME TO
WANTING TO BE A WRITER.
>> IT WAS THE FIRST TIME I READ
SOMETHING THAT RESONATED.
IT TOUCHED A VERY YOUNG GIRLISH
PART OF ME.
IT REFLECTED MY OWN MOTHER'S
LIFE.
>> WHEN I READ IT, I COULDN'T
BELIEVE THAT SHE WAS FREE ENOUGH
TO TALK ABOUT IT.
>> I READ THOSE WORDS AND
THOUGHT, SOMEBODY KNOWS WHO I
AM.
>> BUT A ROLE THAT SHE RELISHED
WAS BEING A MOM TO HER SON, AND
A GRANDMOTHER TO HER GRANDSON
COLIN JOHNSON.
THE CO-FOUNDER AND PRINCIPLE OF
CAGED BIRD LEGACY.
I HAD A CHANCE TO INTERVIEW HIM,
AND BEGAN BY ASKING WHAT HIS
GRANDMOTHER MEANT TO HIM
PERSONALLY.
>> OH, I HAVE TO SAY I HAD THE
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.
I HAD TWO DIFFERENT GRANDMOTHER,
I HAD MARGARET JOHNSON, WHO MADE
ME MY FAVORITE MEAL WHEN I WENT
TO HEM HOME AND FAVORITE DESSERT
AND THIS AMAZING WOMAN MAYA
ANGELOU TO LOOK UP TO AND BRING
ME THROUGH MANY EXPERIENCES I
WOULD HAVE NEVER HAD WITHOUT
HER.
SO I THINK I HAD AN AMAZING MIX
OF BOTH AND SHE WAS AS AMAZING
OF A GRANDMOTHER OF ANYBODY WHO
EVER KNOWS A GRANDMOTHER TO BE
AND ALWAYS THERE WITH A KIND
WORD AND A LITTLE BIT OF ADVICE.
>> CAN YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT,
GETTING INTO YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH
HER, OF COURSE SHE IS AN AMAZING
STORY TELLER, WERE THERE ANY
UNIQUE OR SPECIAL STORIES THAT
SHE SHARED WITH YOU?
>> I THINK SHE WAS PRETTY OPEN
WITH EVERYBODY.
I DON'T THINK THERE WAS STORIES
SHE JUST TOLD ME AND DIDN'T TELL
EVERYBODY.
OR OTHER PEOPLE.
SHE WAS RELATIVELY AN OPEN BOOK.
YOU CAN ASK HER ABOUT ALMOST ANY
PART OF HER LIFE, MANY PEOPLE
ASKED ABOUT THE HARDER PARTS OF
THE DOCUMENTARY AND THINGS THAT
MIGHT BE DIFFICULT FOR A
GRANDSON OR GRANDMOTHER TO TALK
ABOUT, BUT THE REALITY IS SHE
WAS NOT LIMITED BY THOSE
CONVERSATIONS, THAT NORMAL
GRANDSONS AND GRANDMOTHER HAVE.
WE TALKED ABOUT ALL THINGS.
BECAUSE IT WAS ALL PART OF THAT
FABRIC OF HER LIFE THAT BECAME
WHO SHE IS AND SHE DOESN'T SHY
AWAY FROM IT.
I DON'T KNOW NECESSARILY PROUD
OF EVERY MONTH, BUT OWNED EVERY
MOMENT, BECAUSE THAT MADE HER
WHO SHE IS TODAY.
>> WELL, TELL ME A LITTLE BIT
ABOUT THE PROCESS OF PUTTING
THIS DOCUMENTARY TOGETHER.
I MEAN FIRST OF ALL, HEARING
JUST ABOUT THE ENTIRETY OF HER
LIFE, BUT WERE THERE ANY,
ANYTHING, I CAN'T IMAGINE AT
THIS POINT, THAT MIGHT HAVE COME
UP THAT SURPRISED YOU BUT WAS
THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU DIDN'T
KNOW?
>> I THINK REALLY IT IS SEEING
IT ALL IN ONE PACKAGE.
I THINK THAT'S WHAT WAS THE
MOMENTOUS MOMENT, THE THING FOR
ME ABOUT IT.
I SAT AROUND THE TABLE MY WHOLE
LIFE HEARING STORIES OF MY
GRANDMOTHER FROM HER, MY DAD,
FRIENDS, AND OTHER AUNTS AND
THINGS LIKE THAT BUT WHEN YOU
SEE THE STORY BEING PUT TOGETHER
FROM FRONT TO BACK AND IN THE
BOOK, THE BOOKS DON'T COVER,
THERE'S NOT ONE BOOK THAT
CONFERENCE THE ENTIRE THING.
IT'S SEVEN BOOK, RIGHT?
SO EVEN IN ONE SITTING AND
READING A BOOK, YOU'RE NOT GOING
TO GET THE WHOLE STORY.
BUT ABOUT AN HOUR AND 54 MINUTES
OF THIS DOCUMENTARY, YOU CAN SEE
FROM START TO FINISH, KIND OF
HOW SHE STARTED, AND THE PATH
SHE TOOK TO BECOME THIS
LEGENDARY WOMAN.
IT IS NOT LIKE SHE WOKE UP ONE
DAY AND DECIDED TO BE MAYA
ANGELOU.
IT IS THE CONGLOMERATION OF ALL
OF THESE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
AND AGGREGATING THEM TOGETHER
AND THE AGGREGATE IS MAYA
ANGELOU.
>> WAS THERE ANYTHING FROM OTHER
PEOPLE WHO WERE INTERVIEWED THAT
YOU WERE LIKE WOW, THAT'S DEEP?
>> I THINK MY FATHER IS A VERY
DEEP MAN.
AND INTELLIGENT.
A WRITER.
AND HE THINKS AND FEELS DEEPLY
ABOUT MY GRANDMOTHER'S LIFE.
AND I THINK I WAS MOST MOVED BY
HIS PIECES.
DEFINITELY MOVED TO TEARS TO SEE
HIS PRIDE, OBVIOUSLY, IN HIS
MOTHER AND THEN ALSO UNDERSTAND
THAT HIS DREAM, WITH MY
GRANDMOTHER, AND MY JOURNEY WITH
MY GRANDMOTHER ARE TOTALLY
DIFFERENT.
HE GREW UP WHEN SHE WAS FORMING,
RIGHT?
AND I CAME IN WHEN SHE WAS AT
THE END OF FORMING AND NOW
BECOMING.
RIGHT?
AND SO, I WENT TO THE
INAUGURATION WITH HER, IN '93,
AND THAT REALLY WAS THE FIRST
THING THAT KIND OF SET HER ON A
REAL NATIONAL, INTERNATIONAL
STAGE.
IT REALLY STARTED TO BLOW UP.
AND THEN THE UNITED NATIONS 50th
ANNIVERSARY CAME UP.
AND THOSE TWO BIG EVENTS REALLY
ARE WHAT KIND OF SET FIRE TO HER
CAREER AFTER THE '90s.
>> WELL, GIVEN THE FACT THAT THE
REST OF US AREN'T IN YOUR
FAMILY, UNFORTUNATELY, EVEN
THOUGH I THINK WE MIGHT FEEL
LIKE WE ARE, WHAT IS IT THAT YOU
WOULD WANT THE GENERAL PUBLIC TO
TAKE AWAY FROM HAVING SEEN THIS
DOCUMENTARY?
>> I THINK THAT ONE,
AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY IS
AMERICAN HISTORY, FIRST.
AND IF YOU LOOK AT MY
GRANDMOTHER AND THE PROCESS IN
WHICH HER LIFE FOLLOWED, GREAT
MIGRATION, JIM CROW SOUTH, A
NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS THAT SHE
STARTED TO DEAL WITH, YOU KNOW,
INTER RACIAL DATING, AND LOVING
A WHITE MAN AND WHAT THAT MEANT
FOR HER, AND YOU KNOW, ALL OF
THIS IS PART OF THAT FABRIC,
THAT MAKES AMERICA GREAT, RIGHT?
AND YOU CAN FOLLOW HER ALMOST
LIKE A FOREST GUMP NATURE,
THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, AND MEETING
LUMINARIES LIKE A JAMES BALDWIN
AND YOU KNOW, SO MANY OTHER
GREAT SINGERS, WRITERS,
POLITICIANS TODAY, ALL OF THESE
PEOPLE THAT WERE, YOU KNOW, NOW
ICONS TODAY, BUT WHITE BLACK AND
OTHER COLORS, AND THAT BEFORE
WERE LENDING EACH OTHER MONEY TO
BUY LUNCH, YOU KNOW.
AND SO YOU SEE HER MOVE TO, GO
TO WEST AFRICA, AND FALL IN LOVE
WITH AN AFRICAN FREEDOM FIGHTER
AND THEN REALIZE THAT THERE,
WOMEN ARE BEING OPPRESSED.
SO IT IS NOT JUST, YOU KNOW,
AFRICAN-AMERICAN RIGHTS AND
ACTIVISM BUT IT IS ALSO WOMEN'S
ACTIVISM.
YOU LOOK AT THE HARLEM
RENAISSANCE, SHE WAS RIGHT,
THERE SHE WAS PART OF THE HARLEM
WRITERS GUILD WHERE ALL OF THESE
AMAZING BLACK WRITERS CAME FROM.
BASICALLY, GOING BY WHAT SHE
FELT HER TRUTH WAS, LED HER ON
THIS AMAZING PATH, THAT ALMOST
NOBODY, YOU KNOW, WOULD TOUCH
THESE POINTS.
>> SO FOR THOSE PEOPLE, THOSE
TRAILBLAZERS, WHO ACTUALLY FEEL
THE NEED TO LIVE IN THEIR TRUTH,
AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT FOR THEM,
THOUGH, ONE OF THE THINGS THAT
CAN BE DIFFICULT IS THAT THAT
CAN ALSO BE INCREDIBLY LONELY
PLACE TO BE.
>> YES.
>> WAS THAT SOMETHING THAT EVER
TOUCHED HER LIFE?
>> ABSOLUTELY.
I THINK THAT I WAS AT A
SCREENING THE OTHER NIGHT, AT A
FRIEND'S HOME, AND I TALKED
ABOUT HOW HER LIFE WASN'T AS
HAPPY AS PEOPLE MIGHT THINK IT
IS.
AND THEY ASKED ME WHY.
AND THE REALITY IS
UND A
LONG-TERM LOVE.
AND SHE, PASSED AWAY AT 86
WITHOUT KNOWING THAT LONG TERM
20, 30-YEAR LOVE OF AN INTIMATE
COMPANION.
MY FATHER, HER SON, BROKE HIS
NECK TWO TIMES AN WAS PARALYZED.
YOU KNOW, HER MOTHER, HER
RELATIONSHIP WITH HER MOTHER WAS
VERY STRAINED.
I THINK THAT ALL OF THESE THINGS
REALLY WEIGHED ON HER HEART.
AND WERE PAINFUL MOMENTS FOR
HER.
BUT AT THE SAME TIME, I THINK
THAT SHE REALLY SAW THE LIGHT OF
THE WORLD, AND REALLY DID NOT
ALLOW THOSE THINGS TO DEFEAT
HER.
>> ONE OF THE QUOTES THAT A LOT
OF PEOPLE, I STILL SEE TO THIS
DAY, IS WHEN SOMEONE SHOWS YOU
WHO THEY ARE, BELIEVE THEM.
>> ABSOLUTELY.
>> AND THAT IS DEFINITELY THE
WORDS OF SOMEONE WHO HAS LIVED
AND HAS HAD EXPERIENCE TO SPEAK
FROM THAT.
>> LIVED AND LEARNED.
>> YES, ABSOLUTELY.
>> AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ONLINE,
AND ON DVD, FROM PBS
DISTRIBUTION.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, GO TO
METROFOCUS.ORG.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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