Handle with Care: A Conversation with Maya Angelou
Amy M. Azzam
How does resilience develop, and how can we instill it in others?
If there’s someone who knows something about resilience, the theme of this month’s issue of EL, it’s Maya Angelou. When Dr. Angelou was three and her brother was five, their mother sent them alone by train from California to Arkansas, with tags on their arms that listed their destination. Overcoming a difficult childhood and extraordinary obstacles—poverty and racial prejudice among them—Dr. Angelou went on to make important contributions to literature, the arts, civil rights, and women’s rights. She’s best known for her autobiographies, the first of which—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)—rocketed her into fame. Her most recent book, Mom & Me & Mom (Random House, 2013), delves into her relationship with her mother.
Can children learn resilience on their own?
I’m not sure if resilience is ever achieved alone. Experience allows us to learn from example. But if we have someone who loves us—I don’t mean who indulges us, but who loves us enough to be on our side—then it’s easier to grow resilience, to grow belief in self, to grow self-esteem. And it’s self-esteem that allows a person to stand up.
One of the reasons I wrote Mom & Me & Mom is that I wanted parents to look at themselves—fathers as well as mothers—and see what can happen when a child is loved, when a child feels, “My parents are on my side,” that they’re not just with the authorities, not just with the teacher or the principal or the judge. When my parents really think I’m the bees’ knees—that I’m the best!—when the parent gives those gifts to the child, the child develops resilience. So in the street, without the presence of the parent, the child says, “Yes, I am somebody! I deserve better treatment than this.”
You’ve written much about your mother. What was her role in fostering your own capacity for resilience?
When I joined my mother at 13 after being away so long, I didn’t really like her very much, I didn’t understand her. She was nothing like my grandmother, my father’s mother, who had been raising me, who spoke softly and wore long dresses. I liked my grandmother so much that I’d follow her around, and people would say, “You’ve got your shadow with you!” My grandmother would look at me and smile and say, “Yes, I guess I do, yes. Because if I sit down, she sits down, and if I stand up, she stands up.” I really loved my grandmother and understood her.
When I went back to my mother’s, she sang and danced and wore lipstick. She’d dance in the kitchen and sing along with the records, and that wasn’t anything I was used to. However, I watched her. She told me I had to call her something, and I told her she didn’t seem like a mother to me. She asked what I would like to call her. I said, “Lady.” And she didn’t argue.
She was the mother. She could have said, “I don’t want that.” Instead, she said, “All right, I’ll introduce myself to everyone as Lady, and they’ll all call me Lady.” My mother always took my side.
In your books, resilience and dignity are inextricably entwined, as in your descriptions of your mother and grandmother.
Dignity—the word itself—has come to mean different things to different people, as many words do. It doesn’t just mean always being stiff and composed. It means a belief in oneself, that one is worthy of the best. Dignity means that what I have to say is important, and I will say it when it’s important for me to say it. Dignity really means that I deserve the best treatment I can receive. And that I have the responsibility to give the best treatment I can to other people.
Resilience is obviously a good thing to have. But some kids—impoverished kids, kids from minority groups—are repeatedly called on to have more of it than others.
That’s the cruelty of poverty, the cruelty of ignorance. And by ignorance, I mean racial ignorance. People decide that because you don’t look like them, you can’t have the same value as they do.
The fallout of all those ignorances is that people are asked to give more than they get, more than they have in their coffers. So for a child from an impoverished home—I mean impoverished in terms of finances, food, clothes, education, information, and love, particularly of love—where would that child get resilience? Why would he think he’s worth everything when he looks at television and sees that the home he lives in looks nothing like the homes he sees on television; and people are wearing clothes that are nothing like his raggedy, dirty clothes; and they’re living in homes with furniture nothing like anything he sits on or sleeps on? So how can he even begin to think he’s worth it? He’s got to look at whites and say, “They’re worthy.” And even poor whites, “OK, they’re poor, but they’ve been white all their lives,” as though that gives them some right to receive better treatment.
Sometimes the church is a place where young people learn resilience. They do so from the sermons, from members’ treatment of the young people, and from the lyrics in the gospel songs and the spiritual songs. Especially Southern children. They get to hear some of the African American poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries. They learn there’s great beauty in those lyrics—and great resilience. They begin to hear this music and see how the quality of this art that people like them created affected—and still affects—the world. And that gives them some resilience.
I encourage parents and teachers to read Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen. A number of people know “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but they don’t realize it was written by one of America’s great poets—James Weldon Johnson—and that the music was written by his brother. I’d bring these works into the schools. I’d start with Paul Laurence Dunbar and just continue on to today’s poets.
You’ve lived in several places around the world. Do you think resilience is universal, or does it vary among cultures?
If children are given the chance to believe they’re worth something—if they truly believe that—they will insist upon it. That is in Rome, Italy, or Rome, Arkansas; in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas. Children don’t have to be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but if they can be convinced they’re the best, they become resilient. They themselves will resist any attempts to belittle them.
So resilience is always a bouncing back.
But it’s also a bouncing forward, going beyond what the naysayers said, saying, “No, it’s not true that I’m nobody. I know that not only is that not true, but I’m more than you can imagine!”
We hear about courage and power and self-awareness as being components of resilience. Is there something about resilience that would surprise us?
One of the things—one of the blessed components of resilience—is this: A person who resists being tied down and bound and made less than herself is able, by resisting, not only to be better than the naysayer would believe, but she’s also able to lift up the naysayer.
If you could leave our readers with one thought about how schools can best support kids and foster resilience, what would it be?
I would ask the teacher to be sure that this is the program—this is the job—that he or she is called to do. Don’t just teach because that’s all you can do. Teach because it’s your calling. And once you realize that, you have a responsibility to the young people. And it’s not a responsibility to teach them by rote and by threat and even by promise. Your responsibility is to care about what you’re saying to them, to care about what they’re getting from what you’re saying. If you care about the child and care about the information, you’ll handle both with care, and maybe with prayer. Handle them both with prayer.