Why Maya Angelou Disliked Modesty

As I learned when I met her, the late author believed that true arrogance lay in denying one's own specialness—and denying the specialness of others.
AP

“You may now kiss my cheek,” said Maya Angelou. Her deep voice hung in the air, filling the large dining room inside of her Harlem home.

Stunned, I sat there for a minute. I had never been asked at the end of an interview to kiss someone else’s cheek.

It was October 2008 and I had flown to New York after haggling for months for an interview for an in-flight magazine cover story. Prior to the interview, a set of “communication courtesy” instructions for meeting Angelou were emailed to me, much like a list I imagine boarding schools send out to students for review before making an appearance.  

It said:

Greeting & Introductions

Dr. Angelou will greet you by your last name. She will use your title and your last name in all communications. Dr. Angelou may ask you the origin of your name. You should greet her as Dr. or Mrs. Angelou. Please address her staff as Mr., Ms., or Mrs. - using their last name.

Agenda

Dr. Angelou would like to receive an agenda prior to the meeting.

Meeting Dialogue

Dr. Angelou will often pause prior to speaking or when completing her thought.

Please hold your thought until she is finishing speaking.

Foreign Language

Dr. Angelou speaks five different languages. She will enjoy speaking French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, or Fanti with you.

Attire

During formal business, meetings Dr. Angelou ask the men to wear a jacket and tie and women in appropriate business attire.

Room Temperature

Dr. Angelou requires warm rooms. You may choose to remove your jacket or loosen your tie if you find the room too warm.

Arrival

Dr. Angelou would like for participants in the same meeting to arrive together on time.

Chair

Dr. Angelou will sit in the chair at the end of the table to have access to her staff and phones.

Food Allergy

Dr. Angelou is highly allergic to seafood. Please do not eat any seafood prior to meeting with her.

Although I had interviewed other celebrities, this list was a first. I had no idea what to expect.

* * *

“Do you want water," Angelou asked as we sat down at her dining-room table, "or the world’s greatest apple juice?"

Of course, I choose apple juice.

I had worn a formal black suit and was trying not to sweat in her balmy second home, where rich hues of apple and amber contrasted with the dark wood and large African paintings. Soon, Angelou admitted she was really a white-wine drinker who had five cases of chardonnay in her cellar. Before long, the previously “important” agenda was nowhere to be seen, and the formal rules relaxed.

Over the next few hours we talked about Angelou’s early beginnings and later years, about womanhood and life in a prejudicial culture. Even with all the autobiographies, books of poetry, and essays she had already written, and even with the pending publication of Letter to My Daughter, there was so much more advice she still wanted to give women.

“I wanted to talk more about courage, more about depending on one’s own self,” she told me. “Even in our own culture, women at times do not value themselves enough."

“It’s about courage and showing respect," she said. "I respect myself and insist upon it from everybody. And because I do it, I then respect everybody too.”

Too many times, she said, women are “lured into being disrespectful” and blame other women for being very fat or very skinny, or for making some bad choices.

“No,” she said, her voice crescendoing from behind the oxygen mask she was wearing. “Each of us is phenomenal.”

Presented by

Dawn Reiss is a journalist based in Chicago. She has written for Time, USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune.

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