By Kenya King
It is incredibly hard to say goodbye to such a luminous soul as Dr. Maya Angelou. Her words, her wisdom and her graciousness touched so many. A testament to her vast contributions to the world was shown at her recent memorial service with everyone from a president to a first lady paying homage to her life and legacy.
I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to interview Dr. Angelou this year, a few months after the death of Nelson Mandela. Dr. Angelou wrote a tribute poem in honor of Nelson Mandela entitled His Day is Done and she shared with me her thoughts about Nelson Mandela’s life in South African. It is timely that the many of the esteems she so poignantly wrote about Mandela can also be distinguished to her.
From our conversation, I was reminded of the importance of fulfilling the purpose that I’m here for. Within that, I also unpredictably learned a few life lessons and suddenly became one of those individuals who feels like she’s flying under Dr. Angelou’s wings.
Her voice will never go silent and will continue to be reflected through the lives she has changed. I am convinced that is why the caged bird will keep singing the songs of freedom long after Dr. Angelou’s “day is done.”
Excerpt from Interview the Maya Angelou
King: Congratulations on your new book.
Angelou: Well thank you.
King: Can you tell me about your relationship with Nelson Mandela?
Angelou: Yes, I can tell you also how I came to write this in the first place. The State Department officials called me about a year and a half ago when Mr. Mandela was very sick. And they explained that they had no knowledge, no absolute knowledge that he was sick under death, but they knew that he was quite old and sick; and so they wanted to be prepared, so they asked if I would consider writing a tribute sort of speaking from my country for my fellow Americans to the people of South Africa saying we sympathize with you and so I wrote it. But then he rallied, he did well and he came back to better health. So the State Department people asked if I would keep it a secret that I had been asked to write that – not speaking to anyone; I wouldn’t tell anyone.
They said when he does die, they would send a copy of the tribute around the world and asked if I would keep it quiet again for 48 hours after he has died, and I said yes. So when he did pass, they telephoned me and said that they had sent a copy around the world and the next day they called and said that it had been translated in 24 hours in 15 languages and now I could release it. So I did.
Nelson Mandela and I met about 50 years ago in Egypt. I was living in Egypt. I was married to a South African freedom fighter who was a member of the PAC, which was Pan African Congress, and Mr. Mandela was one of the founders of the ANC, the African National Congress. They were rivalry groups but they were after the same thing – to try to eradicate apartheid from their beautiful country.
But they’re men and they were mostly men, the freedom fighters. They shouted. They shouted in living rooms and in bars and in the streets. They shouted at each other although they were after the same end, but they were rivals. So when I heard that Mr. Mandela was coming to Egypt, I thought now I will really hear some shouting, as [he was] the founder of the ANC. Well he came Ms. King, he was so gentle, he spoke so kindly to everybody – his rival, to my house keeper, to the doorman, I mean he was just a gentle man, a gentle giant.
To have the clear courage to be courteous to everybody and I admired him of course. We came to be friends over the years and I found that wasn’t just an attitude of his. That was what the man was like. He was generous and kind. He was a friend to every person on the globe. So it was impossible not to like him, to care for him and respect him.
King: About the title of your poem – His Day is Done. What was the inspiration for the title?
Angelou: You know each one of us has a day, which will be done. We don’t know when it is – most of us don’t know when the day will come. But it will come for each of us. When we are told exactly that we have done what we have come here to do. We may have done it well, we may not have done it well. But the day has come for us to give over back [our lives] and somebody else will come, and they will do. I pray my tasks can be done.
King: Yes ma’am. In your time with Mandela, what do you think were some of Mr. Mandela’s primary goals and hopes for the people of South Africa?
Angelou: I think we can see what happened. Because he lived a forgiving life. I was in South Africa. I went there for his inauguration with Mrs. Clinton’s delegation, the American delegation. After having been in prison for 27 years unjustly…unjustly. He came out and at the election he was elected president; he invited the guards who had been his guards at Robben’s Island. He invited them to his inauguration and he didn’t do it to gloat, to say aaaw look at me. He did it – he said this is our country. It belongs to the blacks and the whites, belongs to the Asians the Indians. This is our country and it’s up to us to realize that we have no time for rancor or bitterness, or envy or revenge. This is still our country…and a place so wonderful everybody in the world would like to come.
Ms. King, the most amazing thing to me. I just noticed it publicly about three or four months ago. People actually go to South Africa for vacation. That is so unusual, I mean if you had said 10 years ago the time people would actually go to South Africa because it’s a beautiful country, people would have laughed you out of the room. But that’s exactly what he was able to achieve. Forgiveness. Had he not been that, blood would have ruled in the streets. Had he been a different kind man. You see?
King: I see. I also noticed in your poem you talked about he offered us understanding and that he would not hold forgiveness even from those who do not ask. What memories of Nelson Mandela were you thinking of when you wrote that?
Angelou: Just that he was very kind. In the poem, I dedicated the poem to all of us on the planet because each of us has lost a friend – the people in Sri Lanka, the people in Oklahoma City, people in Mexico City, people in Mississippi. People, who have no idea, because he was a friend to every human being.
King: Tell me about your work with the SCLC and your relationship with Mrs. King.
Angelou: Coretta Scott King and I were chosen sisters. And Winnie Mandela and I were chosen sisters. At Mrs. King’s homegoing when she died, I gave the eulogy in Atlanta and I pointed out that because of Winnie Mandela and because of Coretta Scott King and because of Betty Shabazz, and their love and respect for the men they married and loved – what’s so great is that they kept the men alive. Without them those men would be just figures on the pages of history. But Winnie Mandela stayed in house arrest for years and Coretta Scott King kept that dream of Martin Luther King alive. Betty Shabazz kept the hope for Malcolm X alive because they were great women and they were in love with and married to great men. So, we were very chose and I’m proud of them and I’m proud of the men they loved and supported and the dreams they all had. Because their dreams were not just for all black people or all short people or fat people or thin, but for all human beings to live a better life.
King: This year the National Black History Month Theme set by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is Civil Rights in America. What are your thoughts about the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act?
Angelou: It’s wonderful. We have to continue to keep it alive. Nothing is going to continue unless we keep it alive. There was a time when I was growing up when we were very happy that we had black history day and then they had a week and now there are whole areas named for Martin Luther King and bridges and gardens and ha, ha and we have a black man and black woman and two girls and a grandmother in the White House. So yes, we’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go. But we have to consider and complement ourselves that we’ve come a long way. Otherwise young people will say you mean with the lives and deaths of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, we haven’t done any better than that. So we have to say yes, we have done very well. But we have a long way to go.
King: My last question is when your day is done, what do you want people to remember about you?
Angelou: Uum……Oh you don’t need to ask me that. No not that, it’s just that everybody wants to do the best that he or she can. I want to do the best I can.
Kenya King is a freelance writer and frequently contributes to the Atlanta Daily World. She serves on the Executive Council Board for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the founders of Black History Month. Founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915, ASALH’s mission is to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community. ASALH will host its centennial convention in Atlanta, GA in 2015. For more information about ASALH, visit asalh.org.