Foreign Press Follows Dems In Denver
CHERYL CORLEY, host: ..TEXT: This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is in Denver this week, covering the Democratic National Convention. The convention wraps up tonight in Denver with Illinois Senator Barack Obama accepting the nomination for president of the United States. He becomes the only African-America to lead a major party ticket. And his quest forged new routes to the White House that were largely virtual, ranging from his outreach to grassroots donors to the text message announcement of his vice presidential pick. But now the prospect of an Obama presidency is moving a bit closer to reality and that set off a round of real questions for us. What if there is a black president of the United States? What does that do to old stereotypes and expectations? And how does that play into fears? And will that ultimately translate into the change that Senator Obama has largely built his campaign around. We've been posing those questions to influential thinker and political figures and artists. And in this latest installment of the Tell Me More series What If?, host Michel Martin speaks with poet and author Maya Angelou.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Maya Angelou, it's a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. MAYA ANGELOU (Author and Poet): Thank you very much.
MARTIN: We want to talk about what it would mean to this country to have an African-American president. But before we do that, I do want to remind everyone that you have been very close to the Clintons. You composed and recited a poem for the inauguration or President Bill Clinton, you supported Senator Hillary Clinton in the primary campaign. Are you very disappointed that she did not prevail?
Ms. ANGELOU: Well, yes, she was my candidate, so I'm disappointed. However, I have been admiring Senator Obama all the while. And I supported Senator Clinton because I thought she would be the best for our country. But it really was a win-win situation. So when she stepped down, I stepped behind her and said in effect to Senator Obama, you can have me entirely. I support you. I believe his brilliant, not just clever. I don't mean that. I mean, really wise. And our country - we need him. And I love seeing the people support him - white and black, Spanish-speaking Native American, Asian. I really like that. It means, if somebody has enough intelligence to ask for the best man, not the white man, not the white woman or the black woman, but the best person. And so, people are living behind the ignorance of racism to support the right person, not the white person. That makes me feel very good and very happy not only for my country, but for the globe.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask you if you thought in your lifetime that you would see an African-American this close to the possibility of becoming president?
Ms. ANGELOU: I never thought I would live to see it. I love when Shirley Chisholm ran, I supported Jesse Jackson. I never really thought it would happen, but I wanted to say I believe it should happen. But now, it can happen.
MARTIN: What do you think it will mean if Barack Obama becomes president of the United States?
Ms. ANGELOU: What I mean is we'll have to - many of us will have to give up some of the ignorances we were born into, and some that we live by. Some we inherited from our parents and some from our society, and some just out of sheer laziness. That is to say my people always thought this way, so I'm going to think this way, rather than to use the energy to think a new thought. So it means that we're going to have a healthy - we start up on a healthy stand. We're standing on both feet rather than one foot rather andbbling.
MARTIN: Some say that his election would signal that this country is beyond race. Do you think that that is true or possible?
Ms. ANGELOU: No. No, no, I don't think we can get beyond race and racism. There's a difference beyond racism. It's not too bad. I mean, it's not a - we don't need to be beyond race. We need to be beyond racism. And I don't think we're going to do that until we have intelligence, general intelligence, around the clock intelligence because racism is just one more ignorance. It's like sexism and ageism and classicism. That's just ignorance. So it has been a long time coming and while an election of one black person is not going to erase racism or maybe even 10, but it does start to level the playing field. It does say, well you know, if you watch me, you might like me. Just be fair enough to give me a chance. And if you like me, you might like my children and you may be able to identify with some of my hopes, some of my dreams. And I can identify with yours.
And let me just say this, racism has been legalized in our country so that it was legal for people to say, oh, you can't live here because you're a Mexican or you can't live in this neighborhood because you're Asian. You can't live here because you're African-American, and really having the legal legs to stand up on. But if we didn't have that and human beings could live wherever they can afford, then actually, a white woman's children might come home one day to find no one there and the black woman maybe a next door neighbor and she would say, cme on in, I'll give you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make a glass of milk, or whatever you can eat. And before you know it, the white woman can say to the black woman's children, You can use my backyard basketball hoop and come on in the kitchen and I'll give you a glass of milk. Before you know it, the two people might find, yu know, I like her. So the legalization of hate and ignorance and bigotry has kept us from finding out that we are more alike than we are unalike.
MARTIN: Some people think that we are making entirely too much of Barack Obama's race. I mean, some say that, well, if he doesn't win this election, this election is really about ideology and experience, it's not about race at all. And some feel sort of emphasis and discussion on this point really overemphasizes the fact that the relationship you just talked about already exist. What do you say about that?
Ms. ANGELOU: Well, it does exist in many cases. It exists in my family, that is to say, when I have a gathering of my family, and the majority of the people are black. However, a good - a very large percentage are white. There will always be some Asians and Spanish-speaking. And my child, my son and my grandchildren have been raised calling all of those adults auntie, uncle. So it does exist and I'm not the only person. However, for it to be sort of broadcast, that is cast abroad, we have to realize that you have to live through things. You simply can't waive a magic wand and suddenly all that history can be wiped out. It won't happen that way.
MARTIN: There are those who say that this election is not about race at all. It's about ideology and experience, and that we are making entirely too much of race. What do you say about that?
Ms. ANGELOU: Well, it's not - I mean, I think it is about race. But it's also about values. It's also about the way the people live and their promises and their desires, it's all about that. But one should not rule out race and racism - especially racism - and say that it's not about that. It is. There is that in it. Somebody will want to know, do you really want a black a person to be your representative in the world? Do you really want to see the those black kids in the White House? You see, that will come up. And people will have to make giant strides, giant steps to get beyond it. Then we can't, I mean, put our heads in the sand ostrich-like and pretend that it doesn't exist. It does exist.
MARTIN: You just mentioned the image of that black man in the White House, that black woman, those black children playing on the White House lawn. As a poet, as a person who lives in the world of image and metaphor, what do you think that image means?
Ms. ANGELOU: What it would mean is that we've made giant steps, giant strides, and credible leaps ahead. That's what it'll mean and it'll encourage a fair play, I think, in an attempt to eradicate racism in Europe and then Africa, and then Asia. I believe that.
MARTIN: What if Barack Obama does not win this election? Do you feel that that will mean something very important?
Ms. ANGELOU: If he does not, I think we can be sent back about forty years. I really do because I think that Mr. McCain is not the leader for our country. He may be the leader for a middle class and upper middle class whites but not for the majority, the poor whites, the blacks and Asians and Spanish-speaking. I don't believe so. I have not seen evidence of his caring and I think on the other hand, Mr. Obama does care about other people other than people he looks like.
MARTIN: If you and I are to come together again perhaps in four years and eight years, do you think that we will still be talking this way about race if Barack Obama becomes president?
Mr. ANGELOU: I don't think so. I think if Senator Obama wins, we will not have the same, we can not slide back that is to say, the salient point in Einstein's theory is that life continues to go forward. You can't go back. You can be in a similar situation ahead in the next year but it will not be back. So because of that, if Mr. Obama wins, we will never be quite the same. We can still have deal with racism and all the other ignorances but it will not be quite the same. We will become something. I listened to two white people today, a woman and a man, calling from one from Boston and another from Iowa and they said, they were going to vote for Obama not because they were white and working class, but because he seems to be right. It brought me to tears.
So I think that there will be people who will be convinced as much as whites were convinced during slavery. There were people during slavery who set up and managed houses on the underground railroad. I mean, all whites who had false floors in their houses which they could pick up and the slaves who they were helping to escape could lie down under those boards if slave-catchers came. Now, these people, the white people who helped and founded the underground railroad, it's not because they like blacks but because they like right. It was the right thing to do. And they endangered their lives. There will be people who will take chances to step forward because it is right to do. And that's what we have to count on. I believe our country is capable of it.
MARTIN: Author, poet, cultural icon Maya Angelou was kind enough to join us from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ANGELOU: Thank you, Ms. Michel Martin. Stay well.
MARTIN: Thank you.
CORLEY: And that was Tell Me More host, Michel Martin. I'm Cheryl Corley.
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