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Close friend Howard Dodson, Jr. talks about the life and poetry of Maya Angelou

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The world is mourning the death of a grand poet. The Twitter world is wild with her famous poetic quotes. Here at home, Maya Angelou, among women and African-Americans she was a literary liberator. She has held a special place in our hearts for decades. Here she is in performance.


MAYA ANGELOU, AUTHOR AND POET: You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may trod me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I’ll rise. Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom just ’cause I walk as if I have oil wells pumping in my living room? Just like suns and like moons, with the certainty of tides, just like hope springing high, still I rise.


PERIES: Joining us now to talk about her life and literature of this grand poet is Howard Dodson Jr. Howard Dodson Jr. is the director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and also the director of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and director of university libraries. He is a specialist in African-American and African-diasporan history. He’s also an author, curator, and activist.

Howard, you are among those people that was very close to Maya Angelou. How are you feeling?

HOWARD DODSON JR., DIRECTOR, HOWARD UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES: Well, I was clearly a little pained initially. I think all of us feel a sense of loss in that regard. But as I have a chance to think about it, a feeling of joy came over me because I realized how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to have known and shared this planet Earth with a person so magnificent as Doctor Angelo.

PERIES: And were you feeling liberated by her poetry?

DODSON: I was liberated by her life, quite frankly. Her poetry was certainly one of the mediums that she used to foster this sense of personal independence and development, but through her other writing, as well as–and I think most importantly through the way that she lived her life, she communicated to me and to, I think, probably millions of others that there were–that they could be more than they thought they could be, and that they could do more than they thought they can do, and that there were no limits to what she considered to be human possibility.

PERIES: Right. She really struggled in her life. She came of age as a poet after having had many professions, and she really rose from poverty to being the grand poet that she became. Could you tell us more about her life in that sense?

DODSON: Well, every young person, especially young women, who found themselves in a state of crisis about where they were and what they were doing with their lives, young women who were single mothers who had to raise their children by themselves, etc., can learn something from Maya Angelou. She–I think the message that she communicates through her writing and through her life is that basically the things that we confront in life are simply hurdles, obstacles, things that we as human beings have the capacity to overcome, and no, you know, one-time setback should determine the future of your life. All it should do–ultimately, it should be a means of inspiring you to go to higher and higher heights and become a better and more developed human being. And she expressed this sense of possibility in her writing, in her poetry, and she expressed it in the way that she lived her life. Every day was an opportunity for Maya’s–as she saw it, to be a little better than she was the day before. And she just kept on getting better and doing more and impacting life, the lives of others more and more as she moved through life. And I think young people can learn a lot from that sense of purpose and determination which was such a hallmark of her being.

PERIES: Yes. Howard, talk about some of her literary fame and some of the books and poems that made her who she is.

DODSON: Well, certainly the book that launched her career was the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And that book has had an endearing presence in American literature, but most importantly in the personal lives of individuals in this country, and indeed around the world. She’s probably one of the most-read people in England. All of her books are still in print there, as they have been here. And she just has been recognized and appreciated by especially women around the world for what she was able to help them confront in their own lives, to figure out how to transcend whatever happened to be the obstacles that they were facing.

Her most famous poem is likely “Phenomenal Woman”, and it’s a poem that celebrates black women specifically, but it celebrates women generally. And she–I think it starts getting read and studied and recited by children at a relatively young age now, and I suspect that the combination of that poem and her Caged Bird will be with us for generations and generations to come, because they speak to real challenges that people face on a day-to-day basis, and they speak to them in ways that are instructive–not only instructive, but uplifting and inspiring.

PERIES: Howard, you knew her personally. How do you think she would like to be remembered?

DODSON: I think she would put herself in the same category as Martin Luther King Jr., which–he calls himself a drum major for justice. I would add that she was a combination drum major for justice and a drum major for love or drum major for the advancement of the love at the foundation of human living and human being. And she spread her that message of love, again, not just through her writing, but through the way that she lived and related to human beings of all races, all creeds, all colors, all religious background.

PERIES: Howard, thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

DODSON: Oh, it was my pleasure. And let’s plan to have a wonderful celebration of her life.

PERIES: Thank you, Howard.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Howard Dodson Jr. is the Director Emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and also the director of Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and Dean of University Libraries. He is a specialist in African American and African Diasporan history, as well as an author, curator, cultural activist and innovative administrator.