Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker discuss life and culture in the U.S. South
BROADCAST: Jul. 1, 1979 | DURATION: 00:53:59
Poet Maya Angelou and journalist Tom Wicker discuss life in the U.S. South and how the region’s history has shaped its culture. Topics of discussion include social dynamics and race in the South, the concept of “home” and what it means to return to one’s roots, and religion in the South. Angelou reads excerpts of her poetry, including “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman,” and shares spiritual songs from her childhood.
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Studs Terkel Two of my favorite people, highly gifted artists, you might say journalists are, my guests this morning. They're being honored by Columbia College with doctorates. Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker. Maya I suppose you could describe as a quintuple threat. That
Studs Terkel Poet, novelist, actress, singer, dancer. And Tom is, well, he's a threat, too. In his way he's a threat to smugness and righteousness and writes one of the excellent columns of our, of our country. A New York Times columnist and you remember, of course, his quite moving, moving reflection on Attica, A Time to Die. And they are my guests this morning, and this is gonna be very, highly improvised, wholly improvised. I was thinking, as you and Tom, you're from Arkansas, Know Caged Bird Sings,
Maya Angelou Yes.
Maya Angelou Oh, there's just, there are so many great songs from the South. I was thinking, since I love the South, I love the country, and once one really sees the South, one understands why people have not been loath to kill people for that country. It's beautiful, and there's a spiritual which says, [singing] "Oh, don't you want to go to that promise land, that gospel feast where all is grand, deep river my home is over Jordan, deep river, Lord. I want to cross over into campground."
Tom Wicker Well, obviously many associations. That's a marvelous old song, I've never really heard it sung quite so -- at such close range and with such emotion now. But, you know, near my hometown in North Carolina, there is deep river. I mean, there's a river that's called Deep River and somehow, in my childhood, I used to associate that river which really isn't very deep or very big with the song. And of course, of course, I know that, you know, it has a much larger meaning in it than any one particular river, but that comes back to me very clearly.
Maya Angelou Well, also, you see, before we actually started talking on the air, Tom was saying that he wasn't sure if he would ever be able to live in the South again. He's been asked would he retire to the South, and he's, he's not sure. Probably not. On the other hand, I have made arrangements in the next 15 or 20 years to retire to North Carolina, so that the line, "Don't you want to go to that promise land," is, I thought of it particularly for Tom and me.
Studs Terkel You know, that's interesting, this point you just made, I didn't realize you talked about that earlier. Tom? Maya is a Southern Black woman, wants to go back to the South. The South, to me there's an image, to many Northerners of course, not that the North is that, you know, saintly. But the South has the image, we think of the South and the violence and the racism, you know, we know things have altered considerably in both parts of the country, but Maya wants to go -- why don't you feel like you could go back to the South?
Tom Wicker Well, I, I, you know, I wouldn't want to make a blanket statement about it one way or the other, but I've been asked that often, and I think it's not so much anything having to do with general image of the South or the way people think of it, the way even, even Southerners who, who don't live there anymore think about it. It's that to me, childhood and the associations with my family and things the way life was, 30, 40 years ago, I suppose, everywhere, but, but I experienced it in the South and so forth, it's just too many associations. And even now, when my father was a railroad man, I grew up in a small railroad town. And there's, there's so much about my childhood that's so evocative, it evokes such nostalgia in one sense, sadness, happiness on occasion. I just -- somehow I don't want to put myself back into the, the physical area where life indeed has changed so much. You said that it's changed for the better, and it certainly it has in terms of the worst things that one knew about the South, say in the 1930s. On the other hand, there are many things about the South that have changed immeasurably for the worst, and you know, you can get off the airplane or the bus now in Charlotte, North Carolina, and might as well be Indianapolis, and not that Indianapolis is so bad. But I mean
Maya Angelou Well, now you see, I don't see that. I don't -- there is a deep brooding in the South. Southerners are brooders. Yeah, I don't know whether that comes from the -- it doesn't obviously, upon thinking of it, come just from the topography, but our shared history of such guilt, such an obsessive kind of guilt and, and anger and hurt feelings and dead people and all the blood and the bones and all that. It makes for a kind of ethos that attracts me probably as a poet, as a Black, as a woman. My people have, have spent their, their -- not only their lives, in fact, but their tears and their sweat enriching that soil. I feel very much a part of it. I know that things must change, as change does not stop in any case. And years ago, when I lived in Africa, really, in circumstances that were sort of similar to Anna and the King of Siam
Maya Angelou I lived in Egypt for a couple of years, and in Ghana for almost four, and when I decided to return home, to give up that particular luxury and exoticism, and all that, it was because I thought I had something to say and do and be in the United States. I could feel that I was -- you know that, however egotistic this sounds, the burgeoning, you know?
Tom Wicker Yes.
Tom Wicker Yes. Well, I, I can understand that, and I certainly would never suggest that, you know, I feel that the South is, is in my bones, is is in my voice, there's no question of that. It's somehow, in, in my case, all that I both loved about South and that I disliked, in some cases even hated about the South when I lived there, when I was literally physically a part of it, all of that comes together now, in, in, in an attitude of feeling about the South, that somehow it's in me and it's part of me, and I don't have any desire to go back and live in what is, I think, we perhaps don't agree, but I think a very different South now. It's not, not by any means a perfected South in the one sense or a totally ruined South in the other sense, I don't mean that, but it's, it's just, it just seems to me quite different now. And I, when I go back to visit my mother, still lives in North Carolina, she's quite elderly, she -- the thing she enjoys most, I usually arrive in a rented car, and it's a little hometown, and, and I take her for long drives. We live, my hometown is right near South Carolina
Tom Wicker Yes, we drive down into South Carolina, into eastern North Carolina and everything. And the farther back we get into the, to the backwoods one might say, the farther away from McDonald's hamburgers, and the, and the new kind of building and all that, the more I feel at home. And the more I think my, my my mother feels at home in a way. And then I go back to Charlotte or Raleigh or somewhere, and I don't feel at home at all anymore, I, I just feel as if it's just totally not what I'm accustomed to. I mean, not what I think of as my home.
Maya Angelou Oh yea. Well, you see, a number of Southerners developed myths, white and Black Southerners developed myths and lived those myths. I think that that, that of course accrues to the sense of brooding, you know, that the South never was that bad nor that good. Well, it may have been worse, much worse, I'd better not say that, but it's never been just what the writers of the South, whether they were Eudora Welty, or, or Faulkner, whether it was Carson McCullers, it -- that was the truth about the South, but not the facts about the South. And, it's, it's very hard to, to separate a Southerner from his or her myth, and white Southerners, especially, I mean, working class, agrarian sharecroppers dream the dream of Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind, you see? So it's a curious, it's, it's a fertile field, and I was saying to Tom that quite often I speak about him, though we've just met here in your studio, because it, it's's interesting that some of the greatest thinking, the best on to my know-- to my, to my way of thinking, the best thinking that goes on in the white American community today is, is the thinking of the white Southern male, and I always include Tom Wicker, Bill Moyer, I include Larry L. King because of his incredible book, Confessions of a White Racist, which just bowled me over as a piece of work. If you really look at some of the, the men, or the men who, who do not, do not show fear in discussing their love for our country, or love for a people or respect for truth, and right, you'll find more than likely they are Southern white men.
Tom Wicker Oh, indeed not. Indeed not. Well, you know, and this leads to an int-- I was on a discussion group with Willie last year, and several of us were talking, and the question arose whether a generation of Southern writers, white or Black, was arising, coming along in which they would really not write about the South anymore. Because you see to my generation, and anyone older than I, and indeed to a good many who still say maybe 15 years younger than I, it'd be unthinkable to be a Southern writer and not write about the South. I noticed, and it's true because I, I'm reading Bill Styron's new novel, which is about -- he's from Virginia, and this is about the, the Holocaust, and yet it's being both criticized and praised because it's fundamentally a Southern novel, and I think that's right, as, and I believe readers will see that, as they read it. It's
Tom Wicker But will there come a time when there won't be anything as dis-- definable as a Southern writer? I mean, you may have been born in Alabama, but, but you'll be writing about a different kind of life, because I think the Southern writer, as I define it, would be writing about those things that Maya was talking about a while ago, our heritage, if you will, both terrible and, and good. And so someone was once asked, you know, I believe it was Faulkner, I'm not sure, but someone was asked why are there so many good writers from the South, and he said, "Because we lost the war." Well that's symbolic of, of the whole history of, of the South. I mean, we lost the war because we had the war, and we had the war because of what our, our history was and so forth, but I think there, I think there probably is coming a generation of writers who are geographically from the South who really don't feel that anymore.
Maya Angelou Well, that, I'm sure that will happen. I think Black writers from the South will continue to write about it until there are no stones under which reside mysteries, under which reside anger and repression and oppression and so forth. And that's, that means that the South
Studs Terkel This is -- I, I like this freewheeling, 'cause I see one thought leads to another, but something that Maya said about -- want to return to the South because of a history, because of the tensions at, at the time. Not that -- Horace Caton was an eminent Black sociologist, an old friend of mine, Horace that -- oh, he worked his -- you know, the grandson of Hiram Revels, the first Black senator from Mississippi, post-Reconstruction, reconstruction, and Horace who is now a reknown sociology, he's in Sweden. He's left now in Sweden, working with Gunnar Myrdal, and his life is great, he's got everything. And one day says to his friend, "I've got to go back." She's, "Why"? "Everything's great and I gotta go back. See, the way they make the ham and eggs here is no good, anyway." [laughing] He says, "I want that, and a hash brown, had to tell this guy to make hash browns, but mostly I miss something." What's the most -- you know what he's saying is, the tensions. He meant, he meant the dynamics of some battle. He had to come back.
Maya Angelou Yes, absolutely. I tell you, last -- three weeks ago or so I was in Arkansas and I gave the Winthrop Rockefeller Address at the university, and cousins of mine came out of hamlets, I mean, smaller than hamlets, I mean you know, really, three, three houses in the town and one is the post office, came to Pine Bluff and sat in the auditorium, and I looked out on, I had met them just before, many I have never met before. I looked out on this filled audience, of white and Black faces, and then my own family, my blood, and they were if they had buttons on their clothes, I can assure you, every one had popped that I was standing there giving the Winthrop Rockefeller address, and somebody had told them the people who had given that particular address in years, in previous years, that it was all all right, it had come all right for the family, you know?
Tom Wicker Yes.
Studs Terkel Tell
Maya Angelou The old women, I tell you, Tom Wicker. Old Black women and old Black men, when I get off at an airport, who or walk through the street, meet me in stores and they just take my hand and say, "Honey, I saw you on television. You telling them!" [laughing] Well, I mean, my
Studs Terkel You know where there's a delight, you know, you can't help there's a certain exhilaration, 'cause I remember, we were in Washington after a certain television program with two colleagues, but it's a long story. But she's driving, or someone's driving, and we went through the Black community. Much of Washington is Black, but Washington D.C. Black and, and when they recognize her, they says, "Hey!" It wasn't a question, "Oh, there goes," "Hey, that's" -- not this, "There goes a star," "Hey, how you doing?"
Tom Wicker Well, I suppose I'd have to confess that to some degree my experience, you see, is the opposite. And whether or not this affects my judgment or not, I don't know. But I go back to my hometown, I'm not universally approved of
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Tom Wicker Not that there's anybody there who ever really makes life truly unpleasant or anything of that sort, but I went to my -- let's see, I guess it was thirtieth high school class reunion a few years back. And while everyone, I mean, it was all my old friends that I graduated from high school with, everyone was very nice. And yet I could sense an undertone there that, you know, somehow I had gone away and was different from, from this crowd. Not better or worse, but just different. And, and I think that's a, more of a problem, perhaps, for a, for a white person coming back to the South today. I, I wouldn't want to say, though, that I feel driven out or ostracized. That's not my point, it's just
Tom Wicker Oh, yes. Well, my hometown never was the, the sort of typical William Faulkner sort of place. In the first place, it was a railroad town, which meant that we perhaps had a little bit more association with the outside world. The trains to Florida came through, you know. And secondly it meant we had labor unions there, the railroad labor unions which, while neither then nor now, were necessary the, the most liberal unions. Still, we had somewhat of a different attitude there and we didn't have great old ruling families, and all that mythological Southern stuff, you know. So my hometown was never one that -- where one felt the worst depression of the racial system of that time. In fact, I've written somewhere that it seems to me the most, the worst aspect of racism that I, I recall when I was growing up was that, it wasn't that Black people were regarded as a menace of some kind, it is that they were just not taken seriously. I mean, they just simply weren't really regarded as a, as a -- passage in, in Conrad somewhere, he's writing about the eastern islands, but, and of the dark races there, but he said, in effect, that white men walked through the racial surroundings as you would walk through the shadow of a tree on the sidewalk. You walk through it, you just don't notice it's there.
Maya Angelou Was entirely about, the invisibility of the Black person to white persons, and then, and of course, what happens with that is the subsequent invisibility one has for oneself, you know, which is why one sees this awful lack of self-regard. And Mark Twain said in 1905 or so, he said, "If you'd have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is convince yourself that the person is subhuman." That of course, that, that, that gives you justification. The second thing is to convince your allies that the person is subhuman. That gets you some help. But the third and the unkindest cut of all, is to convince that person that he or she is subhuman. Now, I mean, obviously, a, a comprehensive job was done on the Black American, and it was done not only by force, because force ofttimes elicits force in return, but by neglect, that terrible phrase of that terrible man to
Maya Angelou Oh, yes, I, I didn't mean to. I just wanted to make my point. And I was trying to rush. The, the, the malign neglect of visiting invisibility on a people probably has more destructive success, has had more destructive success than lynchings, than, than job prejudice, you know, employment prejudices and so forth, because the person then, once he or she is -- has internalized that concept, he or she perpetuates it. I mean, it's, it's just, you just keep it going and you tell the children you're nothing, and you say to your house, "This is nothing. This neighborhood is nothing. My lover is nothing, because I'm nothing."
Tom Wicker And I think in a, in a, in a very real sense that attitude has been transferred out of the South, where I'm sure you still find it, but, but it's less prevalent certainly than it was, into our great Northern cities. Because here you have, in New York and Chicago, Pittsburgh, you have this incredible problem of Black young people unemployed up to, it depends on who counts, but up to 60 percent in some cities. Officially, I don't know any estimate lower than about 35 percent.
Tom Wicker And what that really means is at the rate of, I'm, we're just speaking statistically now, at the, at the rate of elimination of unemployment in this country, which is the rate of the, the Ice Age, it means that if you start counting unemployed young teenagers at about age 17, it means that that percentage, 35 or 60 or whatever it is, is never going to have a job until they're -- I mean, probably never. But, I mean, for such a period that they're all gonna be gone to whatever dreadful fate happens, and there are many we could count. Except for that, that handful
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Tom Wicker And I write about this all the time, and I get letters back, people saying, "Well, why don't you look at the classified ad columns and all those jobs in it?" Well, they're either sub-normal jobs or else they're jobs that
Maya Angelou Engineers.
Tom Wicker Of
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Maya Angelou This says in spite of all of that. It says, "You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt but still, like dust, I'll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? Just 'cause I walk like I got oil wells pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hope springing high, still I rise. Does my sexiness offend you? Does it come as a surprise that I dance like I've got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs? Out of the huts of history's shame, I rise. Up from a past that's rooted in pain, I rise. I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise. Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the hope and the dream of the slave, and so I rise. I must rise."
Studs Terkel No, no, wait. [laughing] Right now, we'll take a slight, we'll take a slight pause and come back. We're talking about memories, but we can't separate -- it's funny how the then and the now fuse, and after this particular pause we'll resume. Perhaps memories of church, church in both your cases, in school. Just -- out of that I know further insights come from my two guests, whom I so admire very much, Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker. Un momento. [pause in recording] Resuming the conversation with Maya and Tom. Church. Your singing. Okay. It was a spiritual desire, "Deep, Deep River", which is quasi-spiritual.
Studs Terkel Is
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Studs Terkel Choral
Maya Angelou Choral directors, but just as "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" is a full spiritual, and to hear it in the church and to hear it by, played by jazz musicians, the difference there it's so marvelous in a church.
Studs Terkel You know what made me think about church, something Maya said earlier. I'm sure it's familiar to you, because it, it, you would have it in certain white churches, they don't know. The call and response, when the old Black people said to her, "Tell 'em! Tell 'em!" You see? "Say it!" And so we're talking about -- we know this, and like call and response, the basis, of course, of our original art form, jazz, you know, and so beginning. So anything come into your mind, a memory or the church. In your case, Maya.
Maya Angelou Yes.
Studs Terkel Sorry.
Maya Angelou My grandmother was mother of the church. She took us to church on Sunday. I don't mean, she took us and we left. We went to church on Sunday, all day. Then on Monday night, we went to missionary meeting. Tuesday night usher board meeting. Wednesday night prayer meeting. Thursday night "Daughters of the Church" meeting. Friday -- every night except Saturday. We used Saturday to prepare to go to church on Sunday. [laughing]
Maya Angelou And at all these gatherings, we sang. So I finally knew every long meter hymn, every gospel song, spiritual, every. I mean, I just, it, by osmosis, you know. Whether I sang them or not, I, I knew them.
Tom Wicker Oh, yes. Well you know, the, the church in, in small town Southern communities, oh, 30, 40 years ago, was, it, it was not just the center of social life, it was social life, for whites I think as well as Blacks, even though I must say I didn't -- wasn't seven nights a week for me, but, I was a Methodist, my family was Methodist, and just as Maya said, you know, you went to Sunday school on Sunday morning, and then you went to church. You went to one, you went to the other. You didn't go to one or the other, you went to both.
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Tom Wicker And the, it was -- the dynamics, social dynamics of a small town of it, each of those church, each of the churches, you know, we had Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and we even had the Episcopal Church in my hometown, but it wasn't well regarded. [laughing] You know, and each of those three churches had a youth organization, and I never could figure out the dynamics of it, but about every two years, one of them would become dominant, it didn't matter which church you belonged to, you went to that youth organization, but I guess because the most dominant young people belonged -- at that particular period belonged to it. But there'd be a period when all the young people in town went to the BYPU
Maya Angelou BYPU.
Tom Wicker Baptist
Studs Terkel That's interesting. Church and high school sports. But the church, we come to that again, and the role as Tom was saying, the social center. We know of course during the civil rights movement, the word "reverend" in the prefix of almost every Black spokesman and leader.
Maya Angelou That's right, and that hasn't changed a lot. If you look at Andrew Young today, who is Reverend Young, Jesse Jackson, Reverend Jackson, some of the fine young Black men in this country all operate and you have to think of Malcolm X as a reverend, I mean in that he was a, a, a teacher in, in, in the Islamic religion.
Studs Terkel 'Cause always was the theological aspect to ev - to this movement certainly. And it was throughout, and I suppose you come back to spirituals, don't we, again? The Bi --Testament stories old and new, are of now, of this moment. Remember as a kid hearing Roland Hayes sing, He Didn't Say a Mumblin' Word. Well as he say, this -- I'm ask Maya this and Tom here -- the feeling I get as Roland Hayes sang it, indeed, as Robeson later on, or as Mahalia or you, but as Roland Hayes sang it, Calvary was not then, it was this moment.
Maya Angelou Absolutely.
Studs Terkel It was -- you were at the foot of that hill. As He was up on that cross, you see, but it was of this very! And down below, because he didn't say a mumblin', I trembled, something of the word
Maya Angelou That's
Maya Angelou That's right. But when, in, there's a spiritual which says, [singing] "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel? Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man?" Now, that's very, I mean, it could have been written last week. You know.
Studs Terkel "Were You There". Were -- that's right. Were you -- Roland Hayes [wrote this?] -- Were You There". And so it, again it becomes a question of almost witness, bearing witness, too, doesn't it? The words bearing witness were used an awful lot.
Studs Terkel Who were, as we're talking, who were in-- I suppose this is just open quest-- who influences? On you when you were a kid? Were there any -- do you remember influences on you? One way or the other. Better or worse, better or worse, influences on you.
Tom Wicker Well, I think the great influences on me at that pe -- at that period unquestionably was my mother because in a fairly, you know, we, I lived in a fairly typical Southern small town with the exception that I mentioned a while ago and, you know, racism, that sort of thing was all, was all about, and through it, and my mother never really allowed that sort of thing. I, I don't mean to imply that, that she was not -- that she didn't share many of the more or less typical attitudes of the community. She did. But what I mean is, I don't think my mother ever allowed me to -- I, I know she never allowed me to be disrespectful of other people, to, to suggest that they were nothing or didn't exist or anything of that sort, you know, that belief was not -- that was not in my household, and I was not allowed to -- if I had ever acted that way I would have been very sharply corrected, and I look back on that now as a, as a, as a very important thing, because I don't think that was true in most Southern white households. I, I'd really like to know how that came about in my mother's life, because she's well into her 80s now, and she was shaped in the nineteenth century, after all. But that and then, in, in North Carolina at least later on in the late '30s and early '40s, into the '40s, the University of North Carolina was a, was a, was a remarkable institution at that time, and the, the president of the university was Frank Graham, who I'm sure you know about, and I never knew Dr. Frank very well until much later. But I was just a student, you know, at the university. But he had a remarkably pervasive influence on, on, on many of us for reasons that, that are just hard to trace down, except that he was a man of courage. And he was a man who stood by what he believed in, even when it, you know, he later lost a Senate race for that election and so forth, and I just think he set an example that not a lot, but a few of us, it, it just somehow made a very strong impression. And to this day many years later, many years later, if anyone asked me who was the most admirable man you've ever known, I always say, Dr. Frank Graham. I never hesitate one second, because it's just as instinctive in me as, as anything can be.
Maya Angelou My grandmother. Also, there was a woman in our town called Mrs. Beulah Flowers who really encouraged me to read, and for a period, a few years I was what is called, what was called, a volunteer mute. I simply could not, would not speak. Couldn't. And she took me -- I was about eight, I guess, and I, I read. I mean, I worked in my grandmother's store from the time I was five. So, you know, I read. I could read and write, but she took me to the Black school to the library, and she had a key to it mysteriously, no one had a key to the school. Five rooms in the school, you know? But no, I mean that big building? And she took me to the library, a small room, and told me I must start with the A's and she was going away and she'd be back in three or four months, and she would like me to have read to the D's. So I read everything. I read every book in the Black school, and she had some contact with the white schools. She'd come up the road, this beautiful woman. I thought she was so beautiful. She was very Black, and she wore voile dresses, which are like chiffon now, there's almost no voile, and her sleeves just moved, and her skirts, she was so beautiful, and she'd come up with an armful of books, and I couldn't bring my mouth, I couldn't form the words to say, "Thank you." I could not, but she knew I, I thanked her. So I read and memorized whole acts of Shakespeare without understanding, you know, very much of anything, and I loved Paul Laurence Dunbar very much, so I memorized everything I could, and Edgar Allan Poe I loved, and finally at about 10 or so, Mrs. Flowers said to me, "Now, Maya, the human voice is the instrument for poetry, for the music of poetry." And that's the way she talked in that lovely Southern syrup, now I don't mean bad,
Maya Angelou That sweet, rich, she, she said, 'Now listen to this' and she opened Tale of Two Cities, which I'd read it, three or four times. That was great adventure. I mean, we didn't have anything else. And she began, "It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times." Ooh, I thought it was so
Studs Terkel By the way, we're talking about speech and song. I don't know if a white preacher does it much, maybe certain ones, the Black preacher, the Bard, the sermon becomes music. I mean, there is no line of demarcation.
Maya Angelou Absolutely, and the line of the -- not just the melody and rhythm, but the content becomes pure poetry. So that in, in James Weldon Johnson's poem, Go Down Death, where he's speaking at a funeral, and he says, "Yesterday afternoon", he says, in effect, "Don't worry that Sister Clara Mae is dead. Yesterday afternoon, God in His great heaven looked down on His children way down in, in, in Yamacraw County. And He saw Sister Caroline turning on her bed of pain, and God's great heart was moved with pity, with everlasting pity. And He said, 'Call me death!' And way back in the corridors of Heaven, where Death waits with his great pale horses, he heard the summon, he came rushing up," I mean, it's so beautiful. And he says, "God told Death, go down, go down to Yamacraw County, down to Savannah, Georgia, and bring me Sister Caroline. She's been working in the heat of the day, and she needs to come home. She's tired." And he goes on, and the, the thing just gets more, he says, "Death left on his fastest horse and struck his, his spurs in the bloodless side and down past the North Star he rode, down on" -- you know, and, I mean you can see this glorious thing. You really want her to go at the end, he says, he says, she's -- he says, and "Death came. Sister Caroline saw death, and she wasn't frightened. He looked at her like a welcome friend, and she just smiled and said, 'I'm going home.' And Death took her up in his arms, and it took her off." And oh, and you, you want to applaud, you know. Thank God she died and went to some nice place.
Tom Wicker Well, even in the, even in the Methodist church in the, in the, in the '30s, we had, for example, when I was a boy, we had one last, what we kids called a shouter in there, I mean, who, who shouted back at the, at the minister, you know. Church was beginning to get a little sophisticated for that, I suppose, but we had one of those, and
Maya Angelou Yeah.
Tom Wicker Yes.
Tom Wicker Sure, and, and he was very elderly and he finally died, then we had no -- that had died out at our church, quite literally died out. But no, the sermons were very -- when I was a boy, the sermons were very immediate and the music is very immediate as we
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Maya Angelou But it's returned, if you listen to it, the, the tonality is absolutely African with the pentatonic scale with that flatted third or fifth. And so the person says, [singing] "I came to Jesus as I was wearied, wound and sad." And then the choir, the, the whole body of the church begin, [sings] "I came to Je," you know, and the, you can begin to hear those flats and strange notes between notes, as they, as they sing.
Studs Terkel Here we're talking, the hour, and Didi says to Gogo, Waiting for Godot, "How quickly the hour goes when people are having fun." Tom, thoughts come to your mind as you're here, you're meeting with Maya, I was thinking, it occurred to me, this came about because when Connie Zonka of Columbia College said you two were among the honorees being honored with doctorates and Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker, I says, "Let's get them together. They're both Southerners and just talk," and this is it, and thoughts come to your mind now.
Tom Wicker Yes.
Tom Wicker No, I tell you what comes to my mind. And this may seem shocking to some people. I trust not, but in 1966 was it, when Dr. King made the great speech from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol? Sixty-six, 67?
Tom Wicker I was in Washington for The New York Times and I was assigned to something else at the time, so I sat in a little room we had in, in the Times bureau, the old bureau at K Street there, and listened to that speech on television. And it was a great speech, as you know, and he was -- was a lot in there, he talked about history of populism in the South, and how racism had been used to keep the two races apart and so forth, and something came to me at that moment as I listened to him, I was moved. I was really very close to tears listening to that speech and in a very strange sort of way the thing that kept recurring and recurring to me about Martin Luther King was, "Why, he's a Southerner too," you know? And there I was. By that time I was -- God, I don't know, 40 years old, I guess, or well into my 30s, certainly, and known as a liberal in the race question and all that, and yet somehow I had, right to that point I'd never made that connection in my mind that somehow we're all Southerners together until I heard that speech somewhere.
Maya Angelou Well, let me, you know, let me tell you this, this quick, this story. I met a man in California who was very bright, very nice, much older, very nice wife, white. And when I wrote a television series out there. So I moved back about three years later and I gave him a call, and he said, "Oh, Maya, we read in the paper that you were moving back." I said, "Yes, I need some friends. So maybe you all would come over and have dinner with me, invite me over, we get to know each other." So he said, "That's marvelous." He said, "You know, since I, I last saw you, I've been in Germany." He was with the National Council of Christians and Jews, he said, and was trying to help ameliorate the situation for the troops over there. He said, "You know, the Black guys are having a heck of a time in Germany, soldiers," he said, "And even our own troops are having a hard time." So I said, "What, what did you say?" He said, "Well," he said, "It's true. Our own troops are having a rough time, and not as rough as the Black guys." So I said, "Did you hear what you're saying?" And he heard then. He said, "Oh my God," now, this is the end of the story. He said, "My God, I'm, I'm so embarrassed. I'm going to hang up the telephone." I said, "Please don't, please don't. Let -- that only shows how really insidious racism is, because you are a good man as I understand it, you know? I'm proud of the things you're doing," and he, he's, I said, he said, "But I have to hang up now." He hung up the telephone. Studs, he never called me again. I, he never returned my phone calls, which means that he, his wife, his family and his friends were lessened by not getting to know me. My friends were lessened by not getting to know him. You know? We all are made, are di --diminished.
Studs Terkel The speech you remembered, the speech you referred to, when you realized you and he were Southerners, the "How long? Not long" speech is when he, Dr. King made that one comment, one of many, "And so the poor white is fed Jim Crow instead of bread." If you recall. And there is so, he is diminished of course, aside from his own body in every way, aware then we're talking about this and Maya's story of this guy, he didn't -- then he realized. Now, there's an incident we're not discussing now on the air of a syndicated columnist in town who made the most incredibly outrageous, insensitive comment when the four of us, Maya, another woman journalist and this guy and I were on this program, the guy was absolutely unaware even afterwards. This friend of yours, of course, this acquaintance, became aware and was embarrassed. But this guy's unaware, so it's still pretty deep,
Maya Angelou It's pretty deep, and it's pretty current. I mean, it's, it's like a plague. It's like an epidemic, an epidemic of ignorance and fear. And it's, it's, it's struck, it has struck us all according to our lights, according to our courage, probably the most important of all virtues, because without it you can't practice any other virtue with any constancy. You know, depending upon our courage and our, and our lights, we, we rid ourselves of, of the racism, but it is, it is not -- it's a condition, Studs, that is not achieved, and then one has nothing else to do. It's like trying to be a good Christian or a good Jew or a good Muslim. You have to keep working at it every day.
Tom Wicker That's exactly right. And you're speaking on the most important and elevated level, the moral level, so to speak, of our relationships with one another. But when you get down into the more mundane but still very important political and economic level, it is still a major fact in political and economic life in this country that, that racism keeps the low-income class in this country divided,
Tom Wicker Absolutely. So, so that you cannot have, up to now, you cannot have effective class-action politics in this country. You cannot have it because of racism. And white people suffer as much from that as Blacks do, and don't even realize it.
Studs Terkel Of course then here we have, of course here we have Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker and their -- well, what shall I say? Their awareness, understanding, but -- well, I'll be sentimental: their humanity. And winning the award so that can mean Dr. Angelou and Dr. Wicker. Congratulations on the award from Columbia College, but more than that, congratulations on just being Maya Angelou and Tom Wicker, and what, Maya, would you -- I know Tom and I are thinking the same thing. I hope you don't mind, just some, end with just -- anything.
Maya Angelou Well, there's a very nice poem which has to do, which is -- written for women, for fat women and very skinny women and plain women and pretty women young and old because I think women are phenomenal, as men are, and this song/poem says, "Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model size. And when I try to tell them, they think I'm telling lies. I say it's in the reach of my arms. It's in the span of my hips. It's in the stride of my step, the curl of my lips. I'm a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me. I walk into a room, just as cool as you please, and to a man, the fellows stand or fall down on their knees. And then they swarm around me, a hive of honey bees, and I say it's the fire in my eyes, it's the flash of my teeth. It's a joy in my waist. It's a swing in my feet. And men themselves have wondered what they see in me. They try so much, but they can't touch my inner mystery. And when I try to show them, they say they still can't see. I say it's in the palm of my hands, it's in the curl of my hair. It's in the ride of my breasts, the arch of my back, the need for my care because I'm a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman. That's all of us and me."