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Q&A: Maya Angelou on teaching and giving

October 3, 2012

Maya Angelou, poet, author and educator, will speak at Elon University’s annual Fall Convocation. Courtesy of MCT Campus.

Maya Angelou has been described as a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, producer and director. Angelou will speak at Elon University’s annual Fall Convocation 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Alumni Gym. She has published more than 30 works and has earned a number of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000. She is currently a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University.

Q: I understand you are described as a renaissance woman and can classify yourself as a poet, educator, historian, best-selling author, actress, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director. In your opinion, what is one quality that unifies all these identities?

A: The one quality I use to identify, not only all my efforts and my labor, but me to you is the statement that I am a human being. That helps me to identify myself not just with the efforts that I make, but it helps me to identify myself with other human beings.

Q: What was the best advice you have ever received?

A: My grandmother, when I was very young, told me, when you learn, teach and what you get, give. It seemed so simple at the time, but that will take you around the world. My grandmother is an African-American woman in a little village in Arkansas, and she gave me the most profound advice. I thought at the time, “Oh please.” She said it so often, and she said when you learn, teach, when you get, give. And now I’m beginning to get it. And that’s advice I share willingly with everyone, with my peers and students and those who are superior to me in age, and even in achievement.

Q: To what extent do you attribute this advice to your decision to teach?

A: Teaching at Wake Forest (University) gives me a steady platform from which I can teach. I have traveled around the world doing the same thing: lecturing, teaching and talking about the movies that I direct or write and the music. All of it. Wake Forest gives me a permanent platform to teach, but the world is my platform too. And yours as well.

Q: What is your most memorable teaching moment?

A: Years ago, I thought God had forgotten my name. I thought I really lost it, and I was going mad, and I went to a voice teacher who is also kind of spiritual in a way, and I told him I was going mad. And he asked me would I write down my blessings. And he gave me a yellow pad and he said to write down that you can hear the sound of your child’s cry. Write down that you can hear. Write down that you can see the yellow pad and hold the pen and think of all the people in the world who can’t see. By the time I had finished the first page, I was finished with the idea of believing I had been forgotten by the Creator. That was 50 years ago. It’s been a long time since you’ll hear me complain. I will protest if I don’t think it’s fair, but I won’t complain.

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