In celebration of Maya Angelou and her legacy following her death earlier this year, Bill Moyers has uploaded to his website two wonderful videos of interviews he did with Angelou in the past. The first centers on a trip he and Angelou made in 1982 to her small hometown in southwest Arkansas, Stamps — which was not far from where Moyers grew up in Marshall in east Texas. In this video, Angelou tells Moyers of the suffering she endured as a young black girl in a strictly segregated town in which living life in black skin was an invitation to those who had power, wealth, and influence (because their complexion was different) to abuse.
In this subsequent video from a conference on "Facing Evil" held in Texas in 1988, Angelou speaks about how being raped as a little girl of seven and a half years old in Stamps forever changed her, and her life:
When I was seven and a half, I was raped. I won't say severely raped; all rape is severe. The rapist was a person very well known to my family. I was hospitalized. The rapist was let out of jail and was found dead that night, and the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death.
I was seven and a half. I thought that I had caused the man's death, because I had spoken his name. That was my seven-and-a-half-year-old logic. So I stopped talking, for five years.
Now, to show you again how out of evil there can come good, in those five years I read every book in the black school library. I read all the books I could get from the white school library. I memorized James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. I memorized Shakespeare, whole plays, 50 sonnets. I memorized Edgar Allen Poe, all the poetry-- never having heard it, I memorized it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy de Maupassant, I had Balzac, Rudyard Kipling-- I mean, it was catholic kind of reading, and catholic kind of storing.
When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say. I listened to the black minister, I listened to the melody of the preachers, and I could tell when they would start up on that kind of thing, when you know they mean to take our souls straight to heaven, or whether they meant to dash us straight to hell, I understood it.
So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness, you see, in the sordida, I was saved. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.
Angelou's moving reflection on how she managed to walk through terrible evil, evil that literally struck her dumb, and came out on the other side as a human being concludes with this equally moving meditation:
We need the courage to create ourselves daily, to be bodacious enough to create ourselves daily-- as Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as thinking, caring, laughing, loving human beings. I think that the courage to confront evil and turn it by dint of will into something applicable to the development of our evolution, individually and collectively, is exciting, honorable.
When people who walk through the fire emerge from their experience of burning and speak — out of the fire — with the eloquence of a Maya Angelou, I prick up my ears and listen. Because I know that what they have to share with me is essential for me as I seek to become more human myself . . . .