Poet Maya Angelou believes the stories of the civil rights movement need to be retold so that the country does not forget. To that end, she is hosting a “Black History Month Special,” which will be broadcast on more than 175 public radio stations across the country.
The civil rights movement “lifted our country out of the doldrums,” Angelou says in her soothing, poetic voice in the program’s introduction. It “lifted us to even believe we could have freedom, to even believe we could have fair play. To even believe we could eradicate this vulgarity called racism.”
The hour-long special features conversations with civil rights figures Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); economist Julianne Malveaux; singer Mary J. Blige; and poet Nikky Finney.
Lewis tells Angelou about growing up in rural Alabama and seeing signs designating areas for “white” and “colored.” “And I didn’t like it. I would ask my parents why, and they would say, ‘That is just the way it is.’ When I’d go to the theater with my cousins, all of us children had to go to the balcony. When we went to school, we had to ride broken-down school buses and read hand-me-down books.”
Angelou said it was important for her to hear some of these stories again. “I know John Lewis well, and yet some of the facts he revealed, I guess I knew them 40 years ago in the ’60s, but I had let it go to sleep in my brain,” Angelou said in an interview. “It was good for him to recall some of the overt brutality he experienced. And, of course, the talk with Ambassador Young, who again is a brother-friend of mine, to hear him speak of the experience he had in the ’60s . . . re-revealed — if I can use that word — that which I knew long ago but had let go dormant.”
Blige recounts how meeting Angelou, Coretta Scott King and Ruby Dee at a luncheon hosted by Oprah Winfrey changed her life. “I didn't think much of myself when I met [them]. I thought myself ghetto, that I had no education,” Blige recalls. “That was the beginning of me wanting what they had, the strength they had to press past all obstacles and be an educated black African American woman.”
And poet Finney describes how she was inspired by Rosa Parks and black women who labored throughout history. At Angelou’s request, she reads her much-lauded acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award in Poetry.
“We begin with history, the slave codes of South Carolina — 1739,” Finney recites. “A fine of one hundred dollars and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature. . . . Tonight these forbidden ones move around the room as they please. . . . If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so, too, would I call out theirs.”
Race relations, Angelou said, are better, but more work must be done: “We have to say it is better, or our young people will say, ‘You mean to tell me the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Kennedys, that it is no better than what it was? Then there is no use to me trying.’
“It is nowhere near where it must be,” she said, “but is better than it was.”
“Maya Angelou’s Black History Month Special” is scheduled for broadcast at 3 p.m. Tuesday on WPFW (89.3 FM).