Maya Angelou Shares Perspective on Education, Literacy with Hazelwood School District
The connection between the Hazelwood School District and Maya Angelou--world-renowned and respected author, poet, educator and activist--is symbolic and significant.
She has not visited the district; however, district students, staff and perents recognize her influence as a writer and an advocate for education.
Three years ago, Robert Swingler, choral director at Hazelwood East High School, contacted Angelou’s office to request an interview.
Since 2004, Swingler has been actively involved in promoting literacy and developing an interest in reading at Hazelwood East High School.
Through displays of first-edition books autographed by popular writers to welcoming authors such as Wes Moore, Gregory Maguire, Jane Smiley and James Dashner to speak to students, he helps emphasize the importance of literacy in the district.
In fact, a few weeks after he donated 32 copies of Angelou’s books from his personal collection in May, it was at that time that Swingler finally received the call he had been awaiting. It was a call from Angelou’s office.
Below is an excerpt of the questions posed to Angelou:
In April, Hazelwood East High School displayed first-edition copies of your books in honor of your birthday and your heritage as a St. Louis native. In May, the books were donated by Mr. Swingler to the District for future display. The titles are valued at more than $26,000. How does that make you feel?
“I’m pleased, personally. At the same time, I’m happy for the species, for all of us, because when we share information we show that we intend for the species to survive. That’s how we survive, by teaching.”
How did your education influence your career as a writer?
“Fortunately, I loved to read when I was young. Alas, a part of my past had to do with having been abused when I was young and I stopped speaking for a long time. But I read. I read the Russian writers, the English writers, the French writers, the American writers, the African American writers, as well as the standard American writers. By the time I was about 12, I deduced that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.
“So whether the writer was Guy de Maupassant or Charles Dickens, they were writing about human beings. Whether the writer was Thomas Wolfe or Edgar Allan Poe or Paul Laurence Dunbar, they were always telling stories about human beings. I saw then that there’s no real difference between us, save where we’re born and maybe our particular languages and our cultures, but more than anything, we are more alike that we are unalike.
“That information is the point of all education.”
Please finish this statement in your own words: Education and literacy are essential because…
“Education and literacy are essential because they’re the same thing. They are absolutely the same. The illiterate formally means he or she who cannot read. I use the word literacy in a larger sense. I mean he or she who is not aware of the power of the word. So, very few people are totally illiterate.”*
*Angelou explained her use of the word literacy through an example of the writers of folk songs and their ability to use “poignant words” to impart understanding.
“The folk song ‘Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child’ was written by slaves who couldn’t read or write. Those sensibilities tell me that the person knows the power of words and understands and is willing to share the power of words. He is not an idiot, nor is he less than anyone else. He just doesn’t have the formal education.
“When you accept that intelligence and education, or intelligence and being trained, are not the same thing, it makes you see the importance of being able to read and write. People should be encouraged to learn to read so that they are not ignorant. I think if people already understand how important their words are, they’re not illiterate in the larger sense of the word.”
Of your books, which title or titles would you recommend to a young person to encourage pursuing a dream?
“I would encourage anyone who wants to read my work to read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as the first of the books. It is the first and it introduces characters and situations that once known, the reader has a place of understanding for the following books.”
On the same note, are their other authors you would suggest to encourage young people?
“Yes, there are so many. American authors I would suggest are James Baldwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ernest Hemingway.”
Speaking to the students of the Hazelwood School District, what would you tell them to motivate their personal success, not only as students, but as citizens of the communities where they live?
“Yes, and also as citizens of the world community,” Angelou added.
“I would encourage students to try to develop courage. It is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything – kind, true, fair or generous, but to be that thing time after time, you need courage. I don’t think anyone is born with courage. I think you are born with the ability of developing it, and you start with small things. Be courageous in small things.
“Don’t be unkind. That’s a very large thing, but you can start being kind in small ways. Speak to people who you don’t know. Say ‘Good morning, that’s a lovely coat you’re wearing,’ or hold the door for someone who may not look like you.
“Don’t accept any racial disrespect and don’t be disrespectful. If you’re in company and somebody is being offensive, if you have enough courage you can say ‘Excuse me, I don’t like that. It’s a terrible thing.’ But if you don’t have that much courage, at least have the courage to get up and leave. Don’t allow that poison to get onto you, into your clothes and finally, into you.
“In small ways, you develop courage. And with that, you have enriched the entire society.”
At the end of the interview, Swingler presented Angelou with the gift of song, the spiritual ‘All My Trials.’ As he sang the closing lines, Angelou joined in, “All my trials, Lord, will soon be over.”
“Oh, that’s beautiful dear,” she said. “That is so beautiful and it’s one I haven’t heard in 4 or 5 years and I do love it.
"Thank you so much. Thank you both. You have lifted my spirits.”