A New Home For Maya Angelou Collection

Poet and author Maya Angelou's written collection, including her personal papers and documents, has been acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In the trove are letters from James Baldwin and Malcolm X as well as a draft of her poem "On the Pulse of Morning," which she recited at former President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Host Michel Martin speaks with Angelou and Howard Dodson, executive director of the Schomburg center.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The literary works of author and poet Maya Angelou; her correspondence with some of the historic figures shes rubbed elbows with; her autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; her poetry; notes shes exchanged with literary greats such as James Baldwin - all have been acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Schomburg is a branch in Harlem of the New York Public Library, and it houses many of his signature works that tell the rich stories of the diaspora. The Harlem home is doubly fitting for Angelous work because of the imprint Harlem has had on black literature that defines the Harlem Renaissance.

Here to tell us more are Howard Dodson, executive director of the Schomburg Center and - if I might say - our diva of divas, Maya Angelou.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. HOWARD DODSON (Executive director, Schomburg Center): Thank you.

Dr. MAYA ANGELOU (Author; Poet): Thank you so much. Its a wonder to be here, Ms. Martin.

MARTIN: So professor Angelou, I think this is a tremendous gift, obviously, and Im wondering: Why did you decide it was time?

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, we had to go to the Schomburg. It was important for us to realize and I mean us African-Americans and Americans, white Americans and Asian - its important to realize that there is a center for the African-American culture and its history, its outreach, its influence - are to be found at the Schomburg.

MARTIN: Mr. Dodson, how important is this gift to the Schomburg? Your - I should mention that the Schomburg already houses the works of artists like John Henrik Clarke, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright. What does it mean for the library to also have the works of Dr. Angelou?

Mr. DODSON: Oh, I consider Dr. Angelou to be one of the premier figures of the 20th century as an artist, as a humanitarian, as a spokesman for the cause of justice and of dignity for all people - ranks right up there with the Martin Luther Kings and others. And to have her collection at the Schomburg Center is to say two things: first, that she thinks the Schomburg Center is significant enough to place it there and second, that for people around the country and around the world - not just scholars, but ordinary people who want to know her legacy - the Schomburg Center is a place where they can come and have access to that collection once we've completed the processing of it.

MARTIN: And professor Angelou, you were the second poet in history, after Robert Frost, to read a poem at a presidential inauguration - as, of course, you well remember. Do you mind if we play just a short clip of the poem from "On the Pulse of Morning"?

Dr. ANGELOU: Not at all.

MARTIN: And of course, playing a part of a poem is always such a tricky thing, and I hope you don't mind...

Dr. ANGELOU: I take - I put my life in your light.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Heavy responsibility. I'll just play a short clip.

Dr. ANGELOU: (Reading) Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream. Women, children, men, take it into the palms of your hands. Mold it into the shape of your most private need. Sculpt it into the image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts. Each new hour holds new chances for new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever to fear, yoked eternally to brutishness. The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day, you may have the courage to look up and out and upon me, the rock, the river, the tree, your country.

MARTIN: How does that sound?

Dr. ANGELOU: Sounds good me.

MARTIN: Sounds good to you.

Mr. DODSON: Still has that power.

MARTIN: Still sounds good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, a draft is headed to the collection. And I wonder, professor Angelou; I have to ask: Is there any trepidation about your notes and your thoughts, and kind of revealing your thought process as you were crafting this work? Im not sure I'd want anybody to see my rough drafts of things before they appear.

Dr. ANGELOU: No, no, I have no - I dont have that kind of vanity. I mean, I have no modesty. Modesty is a learned affectation. It's just, it's like decal stuck up on a person. So I have no modesty. I have - and, I pray, I continue to have - and have in abundance, humility. So I'm not concerned about how somebody looks at a piece that I wrote two pages, and ended up with one sentence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: So if they think that's silly - oh, well, maybe it is. But anyway, I have the work.

Mr. DODSON: Well, I just wanted to say...

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you. What about that, Mr. Dodson?

Mr. DODSON: Well, I just wanted to say...

MARTIN: What is the value to other artists to see that, the process?

Mr. DODSON: Well, for other artists but also for this general public, people have this notion that somehow or another - that writing poetry or writing in general is easy, and especially if coming from someone who has such an incredible mind as Dr. Angelou. And so they assume that, you know, she sits down and picks up a napkin or something, and dashes off a line and another line follows, and everything is - just falls in place. It's hard work.

Dr. ANGELOU: Hard work.

Mr. DODSON: Hard work finding the right word, and putting it in the right order so that it communicates right idea that's in her mind, and in the minds of writers. And so I think especially for a lot of young people who I think at this juncture, have not been as committed to that kind of criticism and discipline in the writing craft, her collection will be very valuable in just possibly freeing them up to do two and three and four drafts so that they get it right rather than just getting something down that they can throw out to the public.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author and poet Maya Angelou, and Howard Dobson of the Schomburg Center. We are talking about the Schomburg's acquisition of much of professor Angelou's work.

Professor Angelou, there are many letters - a typewritten letter from James Baldwin dated November 20th in 1970, addressed to dear, dear sister. There's another from Malcolm X, on January 15th, 1965. There are telegrams. There is a telegram from Coretta Scott King, some very personal communications - and I also had the same question about that. Is it hard to, in a way, give over these, some of these very personal things?

Dr. ANGELOU: No, I have it. I have it inside me. Nobody can take that from me. And so no, Im not a possessive. I possess in the essence of the thing, not the batter itself. Not the - you know, there's a world of difference between facts and the truth. You can have so many facts that you don't deal with the truth. You never get to the truth. You have the places where, the people who, the times when, the reasons why, the methods how, blah, blah - and never get to the human truth. The human truth is as elusive as the air, and as important as the air.

So you're not a things person? The physical thing itself is not as important to you.

MARTIN: No. And I hope that some young person or old person will read some of these letters and say, my goodness, I never thought of it that way.

MARTIN: Before we let you both go, Mr. Dodson, Im going to ask you: You announced your retirement to take effect next year, which was quite a blow to many. So I think it's quite a coup to acquire this collection before you leave. Well - but do you have any other surprises in store for us? Do have anything to tell us about your plans next?

Mr. DODSON: Well, if I tell you, then they won't be surprises.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, true. I was just hoping for a little gift, you know.

Mr. DODSON: But I assure you that there's some other things in the - I say in the pipeline. Probably nothing of this magnitude but there...

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, he would have to say that, with me on the line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: Ms. Martin, before we go, I really wanted to say something about Mr. Dodson.

MARTIN: Yes. Please. I was going to give you the last word anyway.

Dr. ANGELOU: Well, one of the reasons that the Schomburg is so important is because of the presence of Mr. Dodson. His insight first; his intelligence.

Howard Dodson came into the Schomburg and opened it up to the community - the community of Harlem, and the community of human beings. So people could come into the Schomburg in jeans, our go-aheads, our slippers. You can go into the Schomburg in dreads or with your hair marcelled - or cut off, for that matter.

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Dr. ANGELOU: And under Howard Dodson's aegis, the doors were opened. And that's what all education should - how it should be offered: completely open.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds like a poem.

Mr. DODSON: And the doors of our church are always open to everyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ANGELOU: That's true.

Mr. DODSON: Every month is Black History Month at the Schomburg Center.

Dr. ANGELOU: That's true.

MARTIN: Howard Dodson is executive director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. And also with us from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who else but the diva of divas: poet, author Maya Angelou.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Dr. ANGELOU: Thank you so much, Ms. Martin.

Mr. DODSON: Thank you, Ms. Martin.

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MARTIN: For more information about the exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and how you can see some of the works and letters we've mentioned, please go to the Program page at npr.org, and select TELL ME MORE.

And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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