By Laura Jenkins
Photo Credit: Dwight Carter
About a year ago I had the incredible honor of interviewing Maya Angelou. We chatted over the phone for about 45 minutes about her new book, Mom & Me & Mom—a heartwarming narrative of Angelou’s remarkable, yet complicated relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter. Our brief conversation was not only one of the biggest highlights of my career; it also deeply impacted me on a personal level.
I learned early in the professional writing game that when I’m interviewing someone, it’s not even remotely about me. Though it’s tempting to lapse into friendly banter during an interview (especially when a particularly gracious subject seems to be inviting me to bring my thoughts and experiences into the dialog) I must remember that I am not talking to them as a fan. I’m talking to them on behalf of my readers, to see if I can tap in to the wellspring of their inner lives enough to reveal a fresh glimpse of their greatness. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson says she strives for “accelerated intimacy” with her subjects, meaning that she tries to create a safe space where they feel like they can tell her anything, even though they may have met only five minutes prior.
Angelou and I reached that sweet spot very early in the interview, so I had to be especially mindful to keep myself out of the mix.
She was more than happy to talk about her beliefs, her experiences and her family (particularly her mother, brother and grandmother.) But on several occasions, she turned the conversation back to me.
“So tell me about your children,” she’d say.
I gave her the bare minimum (three daughters, all grown) and launched into another question.
She kindly answered it and then out of nowhere said, “Does your granddaughter live close by?”
I honestly didn’t know what to make of it. Of course I wanted to lean in, but for the most part my professional ethos kept me from doing so. Since I had a limited amount of time with her, I was ready to move briskly through the interview so I’d have enough material for the feature. But she was set on strolling through our conversation, surprising me on several occasions with her strong presence and insight.
The first unexpected turn happened when I asked her the one and only question that didn’t have to do with the book. I slipped it in because I’ve been working on a personal essay entitled “Amazon Women,” which will eventually be a chapter in my own book. Angelou was six feet tall and I wanted to hear how she experienced being a very tall woman.
“I am six feet tall,” I said, “all three of my daughters are very tall, and my four year-old granddaughter is projected to be upwards of 6’2.” I found it somewhat difficult to carve out a feminine identity during my coming of age years, because adolescent boys typically aren’t interested in girls that tower over them. What has it been like for you to be a six foot-tall woman? Was that ever difficult for you?
“Oh yes,” said Angelou. “It was terrible. Guys wouldn’t dance with me, and I was a good dancer. But [my brother] Bailey danced with me, and Bailey was the best dancer there was. And he was 5’ 4½”. He told me all the time, “You’re a female. You’re supposed to wait and I’ll open the door for you. I’ll hold a chair for you. This is what I do for you. You don’t have to act like you’re some big giant; you just happen to be tall, that’s all.”
“What a gift to have a brother who could affirm your femininity,” I said.
“Yes, indeed. Constantly, and he was not threatened by me being tall. Not at all.”
At that point I attempted to wrap up the topic and move on. “I’m mostly happy with my height now,” I concluded, “though sometimes I wish I could enter a room without commanding so much attention. You can’t be inconspicuous when you’re six feet tall!”
As I looked down at my interview questions to decide where to head next, Angelou started to say something, paused to search for words, and finally said,
“Let me think about this.”
It was as though she were putting me on hold to listen in on God’s scanner. After a few moments she spoke up in a very authoritative voice.
“You deserve to be free of that. The fact that you have three daughters and granddaughters tells me you’re trying to get over that ridiculousness. You’re so grand, and people look at you with such envy, and wishing. No, no, no. You’re fine. You’re just fine, thank you.”
I was genuinely stunned. Never before had I had an interviewee turn the tables on me like that.
But perhaps the most surprising twist in our conversation happened when I asked her about a part of the book where she reveals that she had to somewhat change who she was in order to peacefully exist in her marriage. At the time she worked at a life insurance company that gave her a salary, but no pleasure. She wanted to go to church, but her husband didn’t approve so she did it on the sly, so as not to cause conflict.
“What would you say to women who find themselves suppressing who they really are in order to hold a relationship together? I asked.
When she started to answer me I immediately thought she’d either misheard the question, or had wandered off topic. I wasn’t sure where she was going with it. But when she brought it full circle, you can hear my stunned surprise (complete with stammering) at the point she was making. Since it’s a crude recording, I’ve pasted the transcript below it.
Angelou: Well, I really need to tell you that in Vivian Baxter’s liberation, she also liberated me from fearing death. She used to say, “If I die today or tomorrow, the world doesn’t owe me shit.'”
Laura [laughing]: Your mother did?
Angelou: “Mm-hmm. ‘If I die today or tomorrow, the world doesn’t owe me shit.’ I thought that was so rude and daring… and daring life and daring death. And when I’d ask her ‘What does that mean?’ she’d say, ‘Because nobody promised me today. And I’ve got today. Nobody promised me last week, and I had last week.’
So over time I began to see whatever I have is a blessing. It wasn’t promised to me; I haven’t earned it. I have this. So then I had spent some time in my late teens, being afraid that I would die, that the time would come and I would die. And when Vivian continued to say that to me, I began to say, ‘Wait a minute. Everybody will die, so I don’t have to be afraid of that. It’s the one promise that will not be reneged upon.’ So then, I don’t have to be afraid. And that is a kind of liberation, Ms. Jenkins, it’s a kind of liberation of such value. Of such value. So that, if a husband or a fairly beloved or whoever, doesn’t like the way you’re living life, it’s your life. [Chuckles.] It is yours, and you will have to give it up sooner or later anyway.
Laura: “So, don’t do it… don’t… don’t die too soon.”
Angelou: “Yes, Exactly not.”
It had never before occurred to me that changing who you are to make someone else happy is a form of living suicide. And now that Angelou is gone, her admonition to live my own life while I still can is ringing loudly in my ears. “Don’t give up your life, YOUR life, before you have to.”
If you’re interested in reading the feature I wrote from this interview, click here.