LYNN NEARY, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Lynn Neary sitting in for Liane Hansen.
Maya Angelou has lived many lives - poet, performer, political activist and professor. She's also a mother, great-grandmother and mentor. And now she is celebrating her 80th birthday. Born in St. Louis on April 4, 1928, her parents named her Marguerite Johnson. She decided to change that name when she started her life as a performer and began her transition to the artist she is today.
A new biography of Maya Angelou has been published to coincide with her birthday, and Maya Angelou joins us now from her home in New York to talk about her life. Welcome, and happy birthday.
Professor MAYA ANGELOU (Poet, Performer, Political Activist): And thank you very much for both.
NEARY: Now, as I just mentioned, you changed your name to Maya Angelou when you began performing as a calypso singer in the 1950s. But I understand you had some inspiration in that from your own great-grandmother. Can you tell us that story? Your great-grandmother changed her name when she was freed from...
Prof. ANGELOU: Oh, that's true. My great-grandmother was born a slave and lived as a slave until the end of slavery. And at that time she changed her name to Kentucky Shannon. And when asked, even into the 20th century, why did she change her name to Kentucky Shannon, she said because she liked the sound of it.
And we asked her, everybody asked her, if she had been enslaved in Kentucky. She wouldn't say. She didn't want to have anything to say about slavery. But my brother changed my name early on and changed me from Marguerite to Maya. He personally just called me my sister. And then he called me Maya. He read about the Mayan Indians and so he named me Maya.
And I married someone who had a name like Angelou. That's it.
NEARY: And that's how you changed your name?
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes. It would have seemed to have been changed for me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: When you did change your name and began being called Maya Angelou, did that in any way sort of symbolize a kind of transition that was going on in your life as you were becoming an artist?
Prof. ANGELOU: I suppose so. But, you know, an artist becomes and is made and has artistry thrust upon them. Everybody born comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory. We come from the Creator with creativity. I think that each one of us is born with creativity.
NEARY: But you...
Prof. ANGELOU: Now, how...
NEARY: ...you first sort of manifesting that creativity and the artist in you as a dancer and as a singer. Is that right?
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes. Well, I can sing somewhat but I used to really be a dancer. And the only two things I ever loved was dancing and writing. But alas before I was 25, my knees turned out to be not the best so I had to stop dancing for a living. And I could sing somewhat. I'm not being coy - I have no coyness or modesty. So I was never a good singer because I never loved it.
Whatever you want to do, if you want to be great at it, you have to love it and be able to make sacrifices for it. And I wasn't prepared to make sacrifices for singing. But I will make sacrifices to write.
NEARY: Yeah. But that period of your life when you were singing - and I think you were a calypso singer and dancer - and then...
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes. I was known as Miss Calypso. And when I'd forget the lyric, I'd just tell the audience, I seem to have forgotten the lyric; I will now dance. And I would move around a bit.
NEARY: How did you make the transition to writing? You said that you always loved writing.
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes. I started writing when I was, oh, maybe eight or nine. I've always loved it. But from the time I was seven until - seven-and-a-half - until I was 13, I didn't speak. I was what was called a volunteer mute. But I read everything. And since I liked poetry I thought, well, let me write it. I wrote some of the worst poetry west from the Mississippi River, but I wrote. And I finally sometimes got it right.
NEARY: Of course, you really became famous with your memoir, your autobiography, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes.
NEARY: Came out in 1970, gigantic bestseller, nominated for the National Book Award. How did that book change your life?
Prof. ANGELOU: Well, in a very interesting way, Ms. Neary, I had thought when I started to write it that I would write one book and that would be it. I'd be able to include my life and my feelings, my philosophy, my discipline, etc. But it wasn't. I just got to 17 and I thought, well, maybe I can do one more. And, of course, the last book in the autobiographical series is "A Song Flung Up to Heaven." Six books.
NEARY: Do you have another autobiography in you?
Prof. ANGELOU: No, I don't, no. It's the end of it. I used a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar for the title of the first book and that same poem for the title of the last book. The poem is "Sympathy." Mr. Dunbar wrote this in about 1894. And the poem says, I know what the caged bird feels. Amen(ph). When the sun is bright on the upland slopes and the river floats like a sheet of glass and the bud on the branch still opens. I know what the caged bird feels.
The last verse says, I know why the caged bird beats its wings 'til its blood is red on the cruel bars. It must fly back to its perch and cling. When it fain would be on the bough a-swing. And a song comes from its deep throat upward to heaven it is a prayer that up into heaven it flings.
So that those are the titles of those two, the bookends, the first and the last of the series.
NEARY: As successful as your memoirs have been, as you said, poetry has always been your first love. Why is that? What is it about poetry that allows you to express something that you can't express in any other way?
Prof. ANGELOU: Well, poetry is at once the use of the language and music. And it is music. Young people all over the world, you ask them to repeat some of the popular music of their day. In some cases here, hip-hop, rock and roll, people know those lyrics. Now, why? They can't sing the melody quite often but they remember the lyrics because it is poetry.
And the spirituals from when I was young, just imagine the lyrics that said go down Moses, way down in Egypt land. Tell Pharaoh to let my people go.
(Singing) Deep river...
My home is over Jordan. I want to go home to Canaan land. Goodness gracious, if that's not poetry then Shelley never wrote and James Weldon Johnson didn't write "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
NEARY: Do you have a favorite poem of your own? Can you...
Prof. ANGELOU: Of my own? No. It would be the last poem I wrote. I don't have any favorites. Some things you use at certain times. You know, if you're lonely you feel you've been done(ph) down, it's nice to have "And Still I Rise." You can find a poem about Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Early 20th century white female poet - thin, slim, about to become the recluse she did become. And this little woman wrote: I shall die but that is all I will do for them. With his horse's hooves on my chest, I will not tell him where the black boy lies hidden in the swamp. I shall die but that is all I will do for death. Brothers and sisters, the keys and the plans for the city are safe with me.
It's nice to hear that.
NEARY: It's beautiful.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: It's wonderful. I have to ask you about another part of your life because there are so many parts of your life. Politics has run all through your life. You've been very involved in politics really since the '60s, I think.
Prof. ANGELOU: Mm-hmm.
NEARY: I know that you're in support of Hillary Clinton and I wanted to ask you, even given that, what does it mean to you that in your own lifetime you are seeing this election where both a woman and a black man have a real shot at the White House?
Prof. ANGELOU: It's so exciting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. ANGELOU: And, you know, I had someone ask me, well, things haven't changed, have they?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. ANGELOU: Please. Are you kidding? Things have changed. We have to admit that we've come a long way so that young people would not be encouraged to say, you mean to say with the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Kennedys and Mahatma Gandhi - you mean to tell me things are no better? Well, then what's the point in me trying?
Prof. ANGELOU: Young people must be told yes, things are better. Not nearly as good as they will be when you put your children to the wheel.
NEARY: You know, this book, which celebrates your life, is full of photos that show you surrounded by family and friends and it's also full of recipes. And you really like to have fun.
Prof. ANGELOU: Yes, I do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. ANGELOU: I work very hard and I play very hard. I'm grateful for life. And I live it - I believe life loves the liver of it. I live it. And I try to live it as a Christian. Trying to be a Christian means I am trying to take responsibility for that time I take up and the space I occupy. I am relieved to have a faith that there's no place that God is not. I have to know that.
And my faith usually keeps me all right. But I lose it and I'd say with the apostle and the prophets, Father, I believe, forgive my disbelief.
NEARY: Maya Angelou, a new biography, "Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration," has just been published to coincide with her 80th birthday. Thanks so much for being with us.
Prof. ANGELOU: Thank you.
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