The Telephone Rang and It Was Maya Angelou

It’s funny what interviews make you nervous, which people you think of as “30-minute” subjects, and which ones you can’t stop talking to. For me, most of the movie stars have been easy; they answer everything, they don’t miss a beat and they are usually predictable. Then there are the unlikely people who have intimidated me a little, like the great and demanding chef Daniel Boulud, or the legendary and brilliant newscaster Irving R. Levine, an eyewitness to the 20th century.

And then there was Maya Angelou. There was that voice.

I was told I would have 20 minutes with her, and I read every word of at least three of her books beforehand. I tried to find the soft spots in her narrative, and I tried to, once and for all, identify her role in America. I failed at both attempts. At every juncture, she had triumphed over formidable odds; every time I tried to assign her a role, she switched on me. Dancer, singer, poet, activist, educator—I had no idea what she was, really, or why she strode through our culture for decades like a lightning rod for authenticity and wisdom.

And then there was that voice.

The day finally came, and the appointed hour, and my telephone rang. I cleared my throat; my stomach flipped.

It was that voice, saying my name.

Maybe that’s what I can’t forget, and maybe that’s what made me sit up straight and hang on for dear life throughout the interview.  It was that grand and cadenced voice, the one that schooled you with every answer, a voice made for stories and poems and lessons learned. A voice that made you say yes ma’am and Amen.

Looking back, I think my whole interview with Maya Angelou was really one long question, and that was who was she really? She said she was pretty much everything—the poet and the writer but first and foremost a dancer. Not the answer I had expected from this grande dame, this formidable statesman for human rights and social equality.

“I was a dancer and, once a dancer, maybe always a dancer,” she said. “For I still see movement and love movement in buildings and in people walking and in forests. I still see movement. I suppose that if I were 83 and 800 pounds, I would still think of myself as a dancer.”

That is how I have thought of her since, and think of her now. There will always be that voice, but she was something else as well, something light and brave and true. She is still dancing through our lives, now pure movement, the light wind ruffling pages, whispering her lessons.


Read "Voice of Our Time" with Marie Speed's 2011 original interview with Maya Angelou.

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