MAYA ANGELOU: A GRANDSON REFLECTS

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

Aired on February 28, 2019.

TRANSCRIPT

> 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.

WNET

© WNET All Rights Reserved.

825 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10019