William & Mary

Maya Angelou: 1619 and the Making of America

An Interview with Joanne Braxton of the College of William and Mary

Dr. Angelou addressed the College of William and Mary at opening convocation, August 1993. (archive photo)August 9, 2012

Dr. Joanne Braxton: Why should 1619 be on our minds as we face forward into the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans and women in the English colony of Virginia? What are the enduring questions raised by this pivotal moment in time?

Dr. Maya Angelou: We have an old saying which has become a cliché and that is “You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. “ It is imperative that Americans, all Americans, recognize the imprint of the first Africans brought here and the first white women brought here in bondage. I’m trying to say that the word slavery and the term enslavement has lost so much of its weight until people mouth the words without realizing what they’re saying, what they’re calling up. When you read in history of the enslavement, the hundreds of years of enslavement, it’s too dreadful to have even have been included in Alex Haley’s phenomenon the book Roots, in the television phenomenon Roots, in which I played Kunta Kinte’s grandmother to bizarre, too horrible. And yet we have to face it, or else we will never get rid of this blight of racism and guilt and hate which assembles in our race in the 21 century.

Dr. Braxton: Thank you, Dr. Angelou. You’ve been quoted as saying, “It takes more than a horrifying transatlantic voyage chained in the filthy hold of a slave ship to erase someone’s culture.” I am thinking of your wonderful poem “Forgive” which speaks of Jamestown memories, shops pregnant with cargo, and the greed and guilt associated with the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Given such a horrific backdrop why do you call the poem “Forgive?”

Dr. Angelou: That’s a wonderful question. I have different answers depending on when you call me. I’ll probably have a different answer at 2 this afternoon than at 11 this morning. I believe that we can never really go forward unless we drop this baggage of anger, no not anger, anger’s selfish, but the baggage of guilt and hate and remorse about having even been enslaved. We’ve got to go back and see it all and then say “Ah, now I’m a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.” If I can see that then I have to see then that the slave holder was a human being as well. And I have to be able to understand him and his greed, her and her greed. Now I can get on with my own life and build myself into the human being I want to be, person I want to be, the spirit I need to be.

Dr. Braxton: Some would say that all of this happened a very long time ago and that it will be better to move on. How could rituals of remembrance promote healing among those affected in the descendant community and among others as well?

Dr. Angelou: Well, Dr. Braxton, it is obvious that we have not moved on, we have made some steps toward fair play, but we have not really moved on. The incidence of random killings, this recent incident of rampage against the people whose religion differs from Christianity, or differs from Judaism, or Islam. The hate that impelled a young man to shoot up a Sikh temple…he did not even know that Sikhs are not Muslim and that they come from India, a group of people who believe in peace above all things. This is the same shadow of ignorance that kept other people enslaved. And it’s happening today in the 21st century. It is ignorant, not wise, to think that we can get on without remembering what happened, who did what to whom, to what success, and for what reasons.

Dr. Braxton: Excuse me if I try, naively, to frame a new question. Are you suggesting that transatlantic slaving, as an inherently violent institution, connected with colonial conquests by one dominant culture over others put an imprint of violence in the culture that needs to be addressed on a systematic and systemic level?

Dr. Angelou: Well, yes I am suggesting that, but I meant more than to suggest it. I believe that the same evil that is linked to slavery is the same evil which is the parent of colonialism. It is greed, it is a desire for more power. And at one time England was able to say the sun never sets on the British Empire. So that simply fed such an ego, that all around the world at some point in the 24 hours the sun was shining on some place that England, and Britain in general, and England in particular, had absorbed, had taken in, had swallowed.

Dr. Braxton: Thank you so much for these thought-provoking insights, Dr. Angelou, as we begin to interrogate “1619 and the Making of America.”

Dr. Angelou: You are so welcome, Dr. Braxton. It is always a pleasure to speak with you.