Big news! This weekend on MSNBC's "Melissa Harris-Perry," Melissa will sit down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with celebrated author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou. Don't miss this interview on Sunday at 10am only on MSNBC. Clips will be available afterwards on mhpshow.msnbc.com.
HARRIS-PERRY: Twenty-one years ago, as an undergraduate at Wake
Forest University, I had the honor of being a student in the classroom of
an American icon, Dr. Maya Angelou.
And over the course of her 84 years, the little girl born as
Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, raised in Stamps, Arkansas,
evolved into the global Renaissance woman we all know as Maya Angelou.
She had done it all -- novelist, poet, activist, teacher, singer,
dancer, historian, actress, filmmaker, even the first black woman to
conduct a streetcar in San Francisco. Her globally acclaimed first memoir,
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" added the life story of a black woman to
the cannon of the great American novel.
In her role at professor at Wake Forest University, she taught
courses in literature, democracy, social action and all those who are
familiar with her infinitely quotable wisdom can attest, the lessons she
has to teach reach far beyond the classroom and into our very lives. And
as I found out when I sat down with Dr. Angelou recently, in the living
room of her Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home, her wisdom reaches into
our understanding of modern-day American politics.
HARRIS-PERRY: So it`s been 20 years I think. I took your course as
a sophomore here at Wake Forest.
And I remember that one of key lessons was courage. And that courage
is the most important virtue.
DR. MAYA ANGELOU, AUTHOR, POET: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Because without it, nothing else can be practiced
ANGELOU: That`s right. Your memory is good, by the way.
HARRIS-PERRY: I have said it to myself over and over for 20 years.
When you look at our current world, do we lack courage?
ANGELOU: Yes. We lack courage, particularly because we`re not wise
enough to try to educate ourselves so that we really can develop courage.
So we act like cowards. We sit in rooms where people use
pejoratives, racial pejoratives or sexual pejoratives. There are people
assaulting and beleaguering other people, Mexican, or Arab, or Jewish. We
just sit there like numb skulls instead of taking up because whoever is
being assailed, that`s you nit wit.
So you should say excuse me, just a minute, I won`t sit in this room
when people are being assailed. Those are human beings and I`m a human
being. And so, I have to take up, for I must support this person.
You say he`s too skinny, fat, thin, stupid, bad teeth. I mean, wait
a minute. The statement is I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien
And if you know that, then you have enough -- develop enough courage
so that you can stand up for somebody and without -- maybe you don`t know
it at the time, but you`re really standing up for yourself. It`s the human
in you. It`s the kindness in you which allows you to be courageous.
You develop courage in small ways. You say I will not be called this
because I`m a woman. I`m not a B. Because I`m black, I`m not an N.
Because I`m an American, I`m not a fool or a murderer. I`m not that.
You have to develop ways so that you can take up for yourself and
then you take up for someone else. And so sooner or later, you have enough
courage to really stand up for the human race and say I`m a representative.
HARRIS-PERRY: You`ve also always said that words are things.
HARRIS-PERRY: They can harm or uplift. When I look at our current
political environment, I feel lack of courage, I see us turning our
opponents into enemies, and I see us using our words as weapons.
Beyond the partisanship, beyond supporting this candidate or that, is
there some lesson for a political world that we can gain?
ANGELOU: I don`t know how we can, after the fact, after the
election, how we can look at each other with friendly eyes, having for all
intents and purpose, cursed each other out and said that this person is not
-- this person is a liar, a brute. This person is a fraud. And then the
elections will take place and then we have to work together in the House of
Representatives or in the Senate or in the supermarket.
I think it`s fair and proper to say -- to explain your point of view
and what you hope to achieve. That`s fair. But that doesn`t mean then
that -- say of the other person who has another agenda that he`s a brute.
Or she`s a terrible word. That`s stupid.
What breaks my heart, Ms. Perry, Dr. Perry, what breaks my heart is
to think what would our nation be like if we dared to be intelligent, if we
dared to allow our intelligence to dictate our movements, our actions? What
would -- can you imagine?
HARRIS-PERRY: Can you imagine?
More from my interview with Dr. Maya Angelou tackling the issue of
education is next.
One of the most memorable lessons taught to me by Dr. Maya Angelou is
that words are things, they have power. If that`s true, the words of her name,
Maya Angelou, are powerful indeed.
In my talk with her, we talked about the magic of the name Maya
Angelou and its ability to give new life to communities and to transform
ANGELOU: I don`t know that of 40 schools around the country named
for me and libraries and homes and things, areas in cities, in Portland. In
fact, in Harlem, areas named for me. People have been told, maybe if you name it
for Maya Angelou, maybe the people will take it back and oppose their druthers, and the
brutes. It`s a blessing to work hard and be given such kudos, such
responsibility, such honor.
HARRIS-PERRY: But it`s more than that. That means your name -- you
talk about words being things -- your name has actual power. If you name
it for you, perhaps people will take it back.
ANGELOU: Yes. What we can do when we have built a name or when
we`re building a name or when we`re just starting, the moment we understand
-- oh, wait a minute, I can help somebody, just a minute. I can help somebody.
Then you realize that that person that you`re speaking to and
speaking of is in your lap, and needs you.
HARRIS-PERRY: There are four schools in Washington, D.C. named for
HARRIS-PERRY: It seems like 444 too few. One of them is especially
for adjudicated youth.
ANGELOU: That`s right.
HARRIS-PERRY: Why is that important to you?
ANGELOU: It`s so important. When the larger society is saying,
you`re nothing. I don`t have to consider you. Then -- they then begin to
believe they`re nothing and worth nothing.
And so, they become obese. They become cruel. They become criminal.
They hold up liquor stores. I mean, they risk their lives and so
that`s how they can only get into the school, supported or introduced by
the probation officer or parole officer.
The children come in. They have to be in school from 8:00 in the
morning until 8:00 at night. And 8:00 at night, they don`t want to go home
because home may be where the hurt is.
ANGELOU: So they stay in the school, and I’ll just tell you wonderful
ANGELOU: I went up there, supporting this school, then the two young
men, the two lawyers had a contest, how to name the school. I was sitting
there. Dr. Dorothy Height and one of the founders said here`s a young woman who
has earned the right to name the school. The young woman got up, she was not looking all that good
and she had a piece of paper.
She said, how are you going to name the school? She said, Maya Angelou, she’s telling us to
get up, get up. You know, she`s trying to make us do good and, you know,
Maya Angelou been down low, she`s down lower than any of us. And now she`s
up high. She`s way up over you white people. She`s up over it. I said what?
ANGELOU: That was 12 years ago.
About four years ago in Philadelphia, a young woman came, she said
Dr. Angelou, how are you? I said fine. She said, you don`t remember me.
I said no. She said, my letter won the right to name your first
school. I asked, you are -- she told me her name, and I said, what
happened to you? She said, well I finished at the Maya Angelou school and
then I took my first degree from Howard. And my second from Hampton. And
I`m now working on my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.
See? This young woman was just waiting to happen.
HARRIS-PERRY: She was just waiting to happen.
That also perfectly describes exactly how I felt when I first met Dr.
Angelou more than 20 years ago. And I am so grateful that she took the
time to talk with me this week.
Dr. Angelou and her lessons as a teacher will be on my mind next
Sunday. I will be hosting a special edition of this show. It will be a
student town hall as part of NBC`s education nation summit live from the
New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan.
To inform and guide this discussion, we will be collecting questions
and ideas from students. You can send your ideas via Facebook, on
Facebook.com/educationnation. And on Twitter @educationnation.
Also students can upload YouTube videos for a series we`re calling my
solution, by going to educationnation.com. Go ahead. And invite the
students in your home to do that today. And be sure to tune in next Sunday
at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.