“A peace warrior”: Poet, civil rights activist Maya Angelou remembered by Sonia Sanchez


AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Sanchez joins me here in Philadelphia. We welcome you back to Democracy Now! It is such a pleasant to be with you in person, though sad on this occasion, Maya Angelou’s death. Maya Angelou lived 86 years, she died in North Carolina. Talk about how you first met her and share your reflections about her life and her contributions.

SONIA SANCHEZ: It’s going being her sister, Amy, and you are right, it is a very sad occasion, but anytime I can hear and see her perform, you know that she will live forever. I first met Sister Maya in the 1960’s. That was period when we were all gathering together to change the world. I saw her on a couple of occasions at affairs where we all read our poetry. I most especially remember her in the play “The Blacks.” She came out in her tall, six feet majesty, and you were just stricken by her, by her beauty and by her grace. And I still have in my memory, when Lumumba was killed, Louise Meriwether and Sister Maya, climbing, going over the walls there at the U.N. They were protesting. To have seen that, you stood there in awe.

AMY GOODMAN: The first president of the Congo.

SONIA SANCHEZ: Yes, Lumumba.

AMY GOODMAN: The democratically elected president of the Congo.

SONIA SANCHEZ: It was an amazing moment to see the resistance that they were doing there in New York City at the U.N. But over the years, I got to know her in so many ways on the road, when we read together at various occasions and going to her home there in North Carolina when she was given her birthday parties. Sister Oparah would give birthday parties for her. And she had everybody you can imagine. You imagine that person, that person was there at Sister Maya’s house in North Carolina for birthday parties. You could call her on the telephone and cry and say, what a terrible mistake I made. You could call and say, I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, and she will listen and say, dear, dear, Sonia, you need to come on down here to the house and just rest for a while and sleep. You need for me to cook you some good food.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Sonia Sanchez, she lived in a lot of pain. She was raped and she was a child. The rapist was her mother’s boyfriend, he was murdered. Is it true she stopped talking for five years to everyone but her brother?

SONIA SANCHEZ: That is what we were told. This is an interesting thing, this idea of people not talking. Audrey Lloyd also stopped talking at some point in her life. When my grandmother died, the trauma was so great that I began to stutter. I was the child that went … I. And Luckily enough, that stutter saved me a great deal because my sister and I after my grandmother died, were sent to house to house to house. As I walked into the house, it was announced, oh here’s Pat, she’s the beautiful one, my sister, and here comes S-s-s-sonia, so just give her a book and put her in a corner. So, it’s amazing, but I think that when you don’t speak, when you’re quite like that, you’re filtering out perhaps all of the damage that was done to you, all the pain gets filtered out. Finally when you do speak, you are healed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sonia Sanchez, I wanted to ask you, Maya Angelou was already an accomplished singer, dancer, actress, but then she gets involved in the civil rights movement. Could you talk about the relationship between her art and her activism? She worked with both Martin Luther King and then with Malcolm X later.

SONIA SANCHEZ: There was no separation for us between our art and activism at all. Sister Bernice Reagon talks about the blues singer Montgomery who said we all come here naked. Even though we all come here naked, one of the things we have to do is we have to make arrangements for other people beyond ourselves. This is what she did. Yes, and she raised so much money for the civil rights movement. People forget that. She and Brother Harry Belafonte raised money because the movement needed money. Yes, she marched and did all these things that other people did and she wrote and she knew brother Malcolm, she knew Brother Martin, she was in Africa, she knew Nkrumah. This is a woman who simply at some point moved constantly with her art and activism and saw no problem with the two of them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: …Sonia Sanchez, among the many collaborations that you had with your friend Maya Angelou over many years was on a peace mural in Philadelphia. Could you talk about that?

SONIA SANCHEZ: Oh, yes. I became the Poet Laureate here in Philadelphia. One of the things that I wanted to do — the first thing was to have a peace mural. So, I called Sister Maya and Sister Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and I said, I want you to send me three lines about peace. And they did immediately. I got in contact with Brother Carmen and we also put some — three lines from Brother Martin and Sister Bernice Reagon. It is a beautiful mural. We ended up doing a book also called “Peace is a Haiku Song.” Sister maya said to me, Sonia, good, do that, we need peace. One of the things we wanted to do was to have her words there. I chose words from her book “Amazing Peace,” a Christmas poem that she had put out. So, If you’re ever in Philadelphia, come too Broad and Christian Street and you’ll see this beautiful mural with the words of these women and these men, simply talking about peace. Because peace is indeed a right for all of us on this earth. Our dear Sister Maya was a peace warrior. She was a cultural worker. She was a woman who insisted the way Max Roach and Abby Lincoln instead about peace. Freedom now, peace now, we insist.

AMY GOODMAN: Her radical nature — Maya Angelou’s — now as she’s being remembered, she read the poem at the presidential inauguration. As you said, climbing over the wall for Lumumba, the assassinated president of Congo. Befriending Fidel Castro in Cuba. Meeting Malcolm X in Africa, coming back with them to help him organize The Organisation of African Unity, we’re not hearing as much about it.

SONIA SANCHEZ: That is what you do as an activist. She always said simply, we have to listen to everyone’s story. We have to be involved with everyone. We cannot separate ourselves. So, she spoke at the Million Man March, if you remember that march. She was there with a problem. She was always every place. Anyplace there was any action, we used to say, you would find sister maya there, constantly talking, constantly entreating people to find a way to resolve and solve problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Her books, some have been banned from libraries as she unflinchingly described her life and the experience of people, African-Americans, and others. I remember when I was in high school, our library invited Maya Angelou to speak. Hundreds of people came out, a rainbow of people. She didn’t just be, she spoke, she sang, she danced, and she moved everyone together.

SONIA SANCHEZ: My dear sister, when she got on stage, she would start off with — we do it ourselves too. I started one of the programs, “woke up this morning with my eyes on Maya, woke up this morning with my eyes on Maya, woke up this morning with my eyes on Maya, going to resist, going to love, going to resist just like her, her, her. We learn how to mix the song and the poem and the poetry and the love. People came in rain to see her. When I brought her to Temple University, there were 3000 people standing up waiting to hear her. There were little children lined up who recited her poetry. This is, was, a great woman. When I was told yesterday that she had made transition. I sat up in my bed and I said, Na nga def? Sister Maya, Na nga def? It was important to say, how are you, dear sister? I heard a voice say, maa ngi fi rekk, Maa ngi fi rekk. I am well, I am well, I am well. And we are well because this great woman walked on this earth, my dear sister.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to end with Maya Angelou’s own words. In 2005, she spoke at Riverside Church in Harlem during the funeral of Ossie Davis, the famous actor, director, activist. He and his wife Ruby Dee were renowned civil rights activists. In her address, Maya Angelou reads from her poem “When Great Trees Fall.”

MAYA ANGELO: When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder. Lions hunker down in tall grasses, and even elephants lumber after safety. When great trees fall in forests small things recoil into silence, their senses are eroded beyond fear. When great souls die, the air around us becomes sterile, light rare. We breathe briefly. Our eyes briefly see with a hurtful clarity. Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines gnaws on kind words unsaid, on promised walks not taken. Great souls die, and our reality bound to them takes leave of us. Our souls, dependent upon them, upon their nature, upon their nurture, now shrink wizened. Our minds formed and informed by their radiance seems to fall away. We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable silence of dark, cold caves. And then our memory comes to us again in the form of a spirit, and it is the spirit of our beloved. It appears draped in the wisdom of DuBois, furnished in the humor and the grace of Paul Laurence Dunbar. We hear the insight of Frederick Douglass and the boldness of Marcus Garvey. We see our beloved standing before us as a light, as a beacon, indeed, as a way. We are not so much reduced. Suddenly the peace blooms around us. It is strange. It blooms slowly, always irregularly. Space is filled with a kind of soothing electric vibration. We see the spirit, and we know our senses. We change, resolved, never to be the same. They whisper to us from the spirit. Remember, he existed. He existed. He belonged to us. He exists in us. We can be, and be more, every day more. Larger, kinder, truer, more honest, more courageous, and more loving because Ossie Davis existed and belonged to all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Maya Angelou, in 2005, speaking at Riverside Church, remembering the famous actor and activist Ossie Davis who is survived by his wife Ruby Dee, also a well known activist and actor. As we remember Maya Angelou today, she died yesterday at her home in North Carolina at the age of 86.


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