Phenomenally Yours: A Sit-Down With Dr. Maya Angelou

When I walked into her plush, brightly decorated Harlem brownstone on a hot day last month, Dr. Maya Angelou was seated on a fire-engine-red chair and was the picture of health.
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Sixteen minutes, seven seconds, nine frames. That's how long my television interview with an American icon lasted on video. When I walked into her plush, brightly decorated Harlem brownstone on a hot day last month, Dr. Maya Angelou was seated on a fire-engine-red chair and was the picture of health.

Stunned by her presence, my New York 1 News cameraman, Robin Sanders, and I introduced ourselves, and she greeted us as Mr. Sanders and Ms. Wills. We were so moved by her easy charm and natural grace that Robin and I had to remind ourselves that we were in her elegant home to do an interview, not to socialize. Even at 82, Dr. Maya (as I called her) was as in vogue as any of the women who walked the treelined streets outside of her home. Draped in luxurious pearls and matching earrings, her cheerful face was highlighted by her colorful head wrap.

As Robin set up the lights and cables, balanced the camera, and tested the microphone, Dr. Maya was ready to get the show on the road. "This is not War and Peace" she said.

We giggled, but it was her gentle way of telling us to "Let's move it." I tried to make small talk to distract the award-winning writer, but my effort was futile. Dr. Maya is not one for small talk. The Wake Forest University professor understands the power of words, and talk is never "small" for her.

The exclusive interview came just a few days shy of her appearance at a birthday tribute for the late, great writer, James Baldwin, who was Dr. Maya's best friend. When I asked her of her comrade who she affectionately called "Jimmy," her eyes lit up and she revealed heartfelt and even fiery memories of the acclaimed writer and civil rights activist. "Eldridge Cleaver wrote a nasty book, Soul on Ice, in which he spoke so rudely of Jimmy Baldwin. And I hated it. And he was graphic in what he thought a gay black man would do with a white man and so forth--I hated it. And Jimmy came to my house one afternoon and said, 'Baby, I'm running off. I gotta go to the airport to get to California' and I said why? And he said, 'Because Eldridge Cleaver has been put in jail and he needs some help.' And I said, 'What are you talking about? This twit...this nit...this jerk wrote all of these terrible things about you and you're going out to California to help him?!' And he said 'of course--but I thought you knew: the son always tries to kill the father.'"

With that punch line, Dr. Maya tossed back her head and gave a full-throated and hearty laugh. Her rich sonorous voice bounced off the walls and wafted up the magnificent cherry wood staircase.
Although I was nervous sitting in the presence of this national treasure, I managed to ask a personal question about how she managed to emerge from such a traumatic childhood, involving rape under the ruthless heel of Jim Crow in the deep South, with such joy, courage and boldness. Her reply left me and the cameraman teary-eyed.

"I was loved by my grandmother who told me when I was a mute--I wouldn't speak to anybody but my brother for six years--my grandmother told me, 'Sister, Momma don't care what these people say about you must be an idiot, you must be a moron because you can't talk. Sister, Momma don't care. Momma know that when you and the Lord get ready, you gonna be a teacher. Sister, you gonna teach all over this world.' I was eight years old. I was sitting on the pillow. This black woman who went through the third grade in school--how could she know? My last doctorates are from Columbia University and Morehouse University. I have 65 doctorates. I teach in a number of languages all over the world. Love liberates. Not mush, not sentimentality, not indulgence, but true love. Love says, I got your back."

With those words Dr. Maya looked at me and said, "Thank you." It was her polite way of telling me our interview had ended. I glanced at my watch and only sixteen minutes had gone by. I could've sat for hours with this powerhouse, but I knew better than to say another word except, "Yes, thank you for your time."

My mind spun back to the last lines of one of her most famous poems, which I had memorized for a play years and years ago.

"Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me."

Yup, that's her. Sixteen minutes, seven seconds, nine frames. Turns out, Dr. Maya ended the interview right on time.

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