Camera Rolls: 317:73-77
Sound Rolls: 317:38-40
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Maya Angelou , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on April 11, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Maya Angelou take one. Camera roll seventy-three, sound roll thirty-eight.
In your book you describe segregation as—you know—as a young girl in Stamps, Arkansas you describe segregation being so complete that it's as if whites were aliens.
Can you kind of explore that, describe that for our people?
Well, yes, when I was growing up, whites were called "whitefolks"—I mean it was one word—they were one people, whitefolks, and people who were not very cultured, who had no pretensions to, to the niceties of the world, called them "poorwhitetrash." That was one word also [laughs]. And we, it seemed to me, and we—blacks, we Negroes, we colored folks—were humans, and whitefolks were those others, they were other than. And as a child I was certain that whitefolks didn't have innards. They were, what you saw was what you got. [laughs] I mean their, their bodies, their heads and their bodies, were empty. That you could put your hand on a whitefolks and your hand would go right through [laughs] them. That was my belief, they seemed so different. They walked differently.
Did you have no, so you had no, no real dealings and interactions with them—
—that made them any more human—
—human as you were?
At all. [coughs] Every action from whitefolks was an action of disrespect, cruelty, scorn, so they couldn't be just. No, mind you I read about white people in other places and I believed them. I was a fond reader of Charles Dickens, and so I, I wept with, with the children and, and laughed with the Micawber, and Oliver. I mean I was, in fact I read Horatio Alger Jr., and I was that little, white boy. I understood him. I understood being lonely, and deprived, and almost forced upon one's own resources which were negligible, if at all. But I didn't connect those people with whitefolks, I just didn't.
What was, what were, so then what was your community like?
Was it very insular, was it—?
Very insular. The, there were women who worked as maids for whitefolks and they would bring laundry over into the black area, and they would stop at my grandmother's store quite often and put the baskets down, and I wanted so to go through those baskets [laughs] and see what did whitefolks use, you know, what did they, what kind of things did they have? But the only, the only venturing into our area by whitefolks took place when people would come over to pick up cotton pickers—cotton pickers used to gather in the, in the clearing in front of our store—and the whitefolks would come over either in trucks or in wagons and pick up the cotton pickers. And one could see them then, I could see them, and they talked, they didn't, they didn't have what the West Africans in Senegal, the Serer and Tukuler, called La Lang Douce, "the sweet language." I never heard whitefolks use sweet language, and I always heard black people use it. So, the sweet language was a language dependent entirely upon tone, and even the lengthening out of a word. So if you spoke, if I spoke the sweet language to you, in the South, instead of saying, "Hi there, how are you?" I'd say, "Hey, how you doing?" Well I never heard whitefolks use sweet language, and I heard black people use it all the time. Even though they didn't call it that, you simply did it. So [coughs]-
You talk, you talk about your store, the store is almost like an institution.
What, what was the institution of the store?
Well, during, at the turn of the century my grandmother, with two sons, left and divorced my grandfather. In this little village in Arkansas white women didn't get divorced at the turn of the century, but my grandmother divorced my grandfather, and she had to raise the two boys. So she made meat pies from either canned sausage, which she canned, or chicken, or ham, smoked meats. She would make them up in the night and then at midday she would appear at the cotton gin, which was on one side of town, and the lumber mill was on the other side, five miles apart. My grandmother would fry the meat pies there in front of the cotton gin and as the dinner bell rang at twelve o'clock the men would come down and buy these hot meat pies for five cents. If she didn't sell them all she would wrap the rest of them, turn the brazier of hot coals out, dig a place in the sand and leave it there, and run five miles to the lumber mill where she'd sell them tepid for two cents. But the next day she would be at the lumber mill and she'd sell them hot, fresh, for five cents. After she built up a substantial clientele, she built herself a store between the two so the men could run to her, and there began her store. She, she in the end bought most of the land behind the town, much of the land in the town. She was really a West African market mama. I didn't know that until I lived in West Africa.
In the time when you were growing up, the store, was it a place, was it just a place where she sold goods, or was it more than that for you-?
It was, oh it was everything. It was the center of the black town that was not—
I'm sorry could you start by saying, "the store," just "the store"—
I'm sorry, of course.
How we doing?
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
The store was the center of the black town, the non-religious center, the lay center. There was Willy Williams Dewdrop Inn, there was a kind of roadhouse, but a place where all the people could come, that place was my grandmother's store. But she didn't name it her store, she named it for her son, my uncle who was crippled. My uncle was crippled, the whole right side of his body was paralyzed, and had been since he was three. Mama thought he was crippled because he had fallen off a porch, he was crippled because of some neurological malady. But Mama named the store the W.M. Johnson General Merchandise Store so that my uncle was never at the sufferance of a larger society as a black male, in the South, and crippled. So that was his store. [coughs] On Saturday women came there and had their hair curled. There was a big Chinaberry tree in the yard and so women sat there and they had crokinole curls put in. The barber would come and do haircuts around the Chinaberry tree. The Gandy dancers, who were the men who worked on the railroad, would come over to the store and buy their Coca-cola, and cheese, and sardines, and crackers. And the, and the blues singers would come through when they were walking through Arkansas, and their sound—I learned, I think, to speak in my mind because of the sounds of the South, the sounds around the store and in the church. From the time I was seven-and-a-half until I was almost thirteen I was a mute, but I listened, I just [sucking sound] took in sound, and the, the guys would sing from different places had different sounds, so that from the Brazos in Texas they would sing—
We have to change reels.
Take two. Change camera roll seventy-four, change sound roll thirty-nine.
During the Depression, the troubadours were as peripatetic as were hobos, however they didn't catch freights because they carried their instruments and their instruments sometimes were wash tubs, and sticks in them, and cat gut. So they had wash tub bases. They could break them down, but they couldn't jump trains, they couldn't catch freights. They had cigar box guitars, literally, cigar boxes with the fret made of a piece of wood and cat gut strung. And the fellows from Texas, from the Brazos—black—sounded different from the fellows from Mississippi, from the Delta. So they'd come around the store on a Saturday and sing, and the Brazos guys sounded like this, [sings] "Babe I want you to know I just don't want you around. sings jumbled sounds" The guys in from the Delta sang like this, [sings] "Babe, please don't go,"—way back in their throats—[sings] "Babe, please don't go." It was so beautiful, goodness, and I would stand in the doorway—I loved it—and my grandmother would say, "Sister, come away from that. That's worldly music." [laughs]
Oh, that's wonderful, worldly music.
And it was worldly music in the best sense of the word.
Now, at that time, sort of on a heavier, on a sadder, crueler note, there was lynching going on at the time.
What was the kind of psychic affect on the, on the, on the folks in your community?
In the community, when—even before a lynching—when a black man had been accused of something which terribly offended the white community, the news went around the black community like a string of Chinese firecrackers being set off [imitates firecrackers popping]. I don't know how it got around so fast. And then a pall, a cloud of gloom and fear, would settle over the community like a heavy blanket being put over a light, like a little candle. And people—you could see it, you could sense it, but you could also see it the sag of the people's shoulders when they'd come into the store and just shake their heads. And I'm sure it is exactly the same universal sense of loss, and fear, and dread, and terror that obtained in Russia when the pogroms were rife in the shtetls, when people knew, "Uh oh, here they come. The Cossacks are coming."
You describe in your book a night, a very specific night, now you remember there was a man—I think it was a white man—a Mr. Stewart or not quite, that somebody had messed with somebody in town and your Uncle Willie got so afraid.
Well, whenever, whenever the boys—as they were euphemistically called—the Klan would ride into the black area, all black men had to hide. And my brother and I would take potatoes and onions out of the bin—under, the bin was under the candy counter—and we'd take potatoes and onions out of the bin, and knock the partition out which separated them, and my uncle would take his stick, holding onto his stick, and laboriously get down into the bin. And my brother and I would cover him with potatoes and onions, and he would lie there all night until you, we couldn't hear the horse hooves, the horses' hooves or the truck, which would ride over and by its very presence be a threat.
When you, [coughs] when you went to school, what, how were the schools that you went to different from the white schools, the school that you went to, or even before that—when did you first discover that your schools were different from the white schools?
Well, I thought my school was grand. It was the Lafayette County Training School, so there. It was first grade through the twelfth, one building—no there was a second building, a home economics—Because I went downtown, occasionally, and downtown was an area with one block of paved road and one block of sidewalks, and I saw the white school, which was four times larger, and bricks, and all that, but I didn't, I don't remember envying that. I mean that was those, that was whitefolks, that had nothing to do with me. Until Mrs. Flowers, who is the woman who started me really to reading—I mean I had learned to read—but to enjoy it. When I stopped speaking this black lady took me in hand. She knew that I liked to read and she encouraged me to read every book in the black school, in the library, start with "A." And after a few months she would come and ask me how far I'd gotten and I'd gotten to "Br" or something, and [coughs] I had a tablet which I kept in the belt of my clothes, and I would write how I'd liked or didn't like it. I didn't understand that much but I read every book. Well, she had some connection with the white school and from time to time she would bring books, and they were new. That was so unusual to me because we, we used the thrown away books, the books with the spines broken, or with no, with one cover gone. And I learned to repair books, because black kids did that. We would get cardboard, and with some, cover the cardboard with cloth, remnants that were around, and glue, make cooked glue with—I mean not just flour, but cooked flour—and water to make glue, put a little colloid in it, and put that on the back and the spine of the book, maybe even use wood. By the time the book was finished it looked lovely, you know, so we learned to do that and—but
I had never seen a new book until Mrs. Flowers brought books from the white school for me to read. The slick pages, I couldn't believe it, and that's when I think my first anger, real anger at the depressive and
** the oppressive system began.
** I was angry at the way people treated my mama, my grandmother, who owned the land they lived on. I was angry at that, but that was a personal anger because of their maltreatment of Mama. But when I saw these, that the white kids had these fresh books, it was so unfair because I loved books, and I deserved them. And just because I was black, I couldn't have them. [coughs]
Do we have to cut?
Yes we have to change camera rolls.
Take three. Change camera roll seventy-five.
Can we, actually between rolls we talked about this a little bit, but what affect, if any, did the economic problems of the Depression have on your community? What was the Depression like for you?
Well, there's a bitter and yet rye statement which was made by blacks about the Depression. They said in the South that "the Depression had been going on for ten years before black people even knew about it," even knew it existed, and that was true particularly in the South, in villages, and small hamlets, and small towns because the people lived subsistence, at a subsistence level for the most part. Many were sharecroppers, and that line in the popular song of a couple of decades ago, it was absolutely true, they owed their lives to the company store. So because they hadn't been able to get education, then they were vulnerable to the greed and evil of the farm owners. So at the end of the year the farmer found himself not even even, not even even. He found himself in debt. So, the Depression had gone on long before the crash of '29 took place. I think that the, I imagine that the large hordes of, of men walking around the country had some affect on the black community, and this is interesting. One of the ways it affected the black community was that the white hobos would come to the black area to ask for food. Now, partly out of pride, and maybe the other part out of an ability to identify, to empathize with the hobo, black people always gave food. Now they had beans, maybe, with a little piece of, of smoked meat or dried meat, cured meat, they had cornbread, and black people would give beans and cornbread to black hobos and white. So at the railroad line they would all, they would come to the black area first.
Can you say, I feel like there's something else in that statement, "the Depression was going on ten years before black people even knew about it."
Oh that, yes.
There's something else about that, about the, I guess the sense that things were always poor so—
So maybe white folks felt the difference?
Yes, this is true, I mean, because of the general subsistence level in the Southern states, non-industrialized areas, black people did not depend upon industry or upon Wall Street for anything. They depended upon the earth. They were farmers, and sharecropping farmers for the most part. So that they were not really affected in a large way, maybe subtly yes, but it wasn't until the end of the '30s, the beginning of the '40s, with the advent of World War II when black people left the South and went into the ship building and ammunition plants, that they began to in mass be able to be a part of the market.
Oh, I see. I'm going to take a stab at a really wildly general question.
You tell me if you want to, to go for this one. But is there a way that, you know we were talking about the young people, is there a way that, in some way, to give a sense that, that life for black people was very different then than it was now, I mean we're talking about fifty-sixty years ago, before the civil rights movement, before a lot of things have happened, is there some, again I'm dealing, I'm groping here with a gross generalization, but I'm wondering if you have any-?
There were, there were great differences in the quantity, and the quality of life in the black communities forty years ago. Great differences fifty years ago. The things one could hope to own were minimal compared to today's black community. I mean, even in poor areas a black community could count on, can today, count on there being certain things in the house. There will be a television in the house, there will be a, probably a VCR, and there will be certain, there will be a stove in the house, there will be a refrigerator in the house, there will even be a bathroom in the house, and a toilet in the house. People will actually have clothes. They may not be the newest clothes, they may not be the most expensive clothes, but people will have clothes. Now so here we are talking about things. When I grew up, and in the South at that time, a house was considered all right if it had a floor, and walls, and windows. Now that was all right. The floor would have no rugs, the floor would be washed once a week with lye water so that the wood came up white, and that was always a mark of pride for the housekeeper, that her floors were white, white wood because they were so clean. The toilet was outside, the bath was a big tub in which heated water was poured once a week. There were places one washed up during the week, but the real bath to sit down in water—and one didn't turn on the faucet or the tap—there was a well and one drew up the water. The qualitative differences in things, however there was in the black community a sense of community, a sense of pride, a sense of love. There was a communal sense of religion and morality. People simply didn't do certain things because it wasn't nice to do certain things. Children were loved and looked after. I don't know anybody who ever abused a child. I mean children got spanked, children got whipped, children got talked to pretty roughly, set over in the corner and so forth, but to abuse a child. This was, this is absolutely new in the black community. Never before until the last two or three decades had we heard of people actually burning children, and hurting them. Not that there wasn't sexual abuse, I don't mean that, I cannot say that, but even that was not as rife. Children were so valuable and everybody took pride in all the children. So any woman or any man were subject to call the child away and say, "Child, who's your mama? Who's your papa? Come here. I don't like the way you're—" I was grown. I came back from Europe. I was a dancer. I was the first dancer with Porgy and Bess, and I was a grand, young woman, and I had cut my hair off because my hair was very thick, and I couldn't dance and keep my hair in a certain kind of style. I went into San Francisco and a man saw me on the street. He said, "Are you Clyde Ellen Vivian's daughter?" I said, "Yes sir." He gave me five dollars, he said, "Go do something to your hair." [laughs] "Find a beauty shop." Now that sense of interdependence and humor.
Let me ask you about one other thing though, what about-
We're about to roll-out.
Again? Am I talking that much?
Take four. Change camera roll seventy-six, change sound to forty.
In Stamps, Arkansas, by the time I was ten years old, I expected my brother to become a lawyer. He was a year-and-a-half older than I, he was brighter than I. I didn't expect that for myself because I didn't talk. There was a fellow Henry Reed in my school who was almost as bright as my brother, also a little bit smarter than I, not much [laughs] but he was a little bit. I figured that he was going to be a doctor. Now, although the people in my town did not boast of a number of black doctors and lawyers, but I did know that Fisk existed, the university, Fisk University, and Howard University existed. And Tuskegee, and Atlanta, and Spelman, Morgan State in Baltimore, Morris-Brown, and Morehouse. These were, these were heavenly abodes. I mean I kind of thought that if a child was good, and died, the child would go to heaven and become an angel. And if the angel was a good angel and died it would probably go to Howard [laughs]. I mean that was possible, and it was something to dream of. And
black teachers took such pride in black students, and the community took such pride in smart students that a child who had gotten A's would be marched from one church to another. And people would say, "Now here's brother so-and-so's little boy. Here he is, here's little Johnny, stand up Johnny. Johnny got all A's this week," or "all A's this past year." People who—I mean he didn't belong to that church—people would stand up, "Praise the lord! Bless his heart. God bless you honey. Keep on pressing on." So people took pride in the children, and their pride was an encouragement to continue. So we thought, with the larger society saying "You cannot," we thought "Yes, we could,"
** because somebody had gone before us, Dr. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey. Those were names in this little village in Arkansas which were very familiar. Ida B.-, Ida Wells-Barnett, we knew these names. We knew—and Ms. Mary McLeod Bethune. Oh please, I mean that was genius walking around, and Grace. So, the aspirations, I don't think the aspirations were that much different from today's aspirations. the only thing is that we aspired against incredible odds.
Can you tell me about the odds, the little, the obstacles that the aspirations had to run over?
Well, if a child graduated from Lafayette Country Training School, she or he would have a very good underpinning in black-American literature. You would know Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer. You would know the nineteenth and twentieth century writers. One might not know mathematics very, very well or have even been introduced to science other than the name George Washington Carver, because the teachers themselves had not been trained in the hard sciences and they couldn't afford to get teachers, black teachers, from the North or who really had the training because they could go to better paying schools, you see. So the students came out of the high school without the underpinning they needed, the foundation. They could go on maybe to a church college and get some more training in social services, but to try to get to Columbia University, or to Howard, wasn't that easy. They needed maybe two more years of a, of a, like a Junior College to come up to, just to compete with the people in the other schools. That was always an obstacle because families needed their children to work, and children who felt responsible to their families wouldn't take two more years, you see.
Was there any sense [coughs] of even trying to move into the white society, was there-?
No, not that I knew of. I'm sure there were people way over in Texarkana, way over in the big city, or in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, but not in the small towns, it just didn't happen. Sometimes the teachers themselves had only gotten high school education.
Well you talked about a graduation ceremony in your book that you went to and you felt, again there was that sense of anger, that somebody was imposing upon-
Limits, mm-hmm. That was a white man who really came to speak and to inform the graduating class that they would, they were going to have a new playing field, basketball field, and an addition to the home economics building. So I thought, oh so this is to say we can become athletes, and we can become better cooks, and more adept washer women and men. But to aspire to be scientists, and philosophers, mathematicians, and doctors seemed to be beyond us because they had—the man also, insensitively, informed us that the white school had been given fifty new microscopes. So obviously we were being told, "don't you aspire beyond these limitations."
Great, thank you. OK, I think we are done.
Yes, thank you.
Camera roll seventy-seven, sound roll forty.
Tell me. The last inch of space was filled yet people continued to edge themselves along the walls of the store.
Uncle Willie had turned the radio up to its last notch so that youngsters on the porch wouldn't miss a word. Women sat on kitchen chairs, dining room chairs, stools, and upturned wooden boxes. Small children and babies perched on every lap available, and men leaned on the shelves or on each other.
** The apprehensive mood was shot through with shafts of gaiety as a black sky is streaked with lightning. One man said, "I ain't worried about this fight. Joe gonna whip that cracker like it's open season." Another said, "He gonna whip him till that white boy call him Mama."
** At last the talking was finished and the string-along songs about razor blades were over and the fight began. "A quick jab to the head," in the store the crowd grunted. "A left to the head, and a right, and another left." One of the listeners cackled like a hen and was quieted. "They're in a clench, Louis is trying to fight his way out." Some bitter comedian on the porch said, "That white man don't mind huggin' that nigger now I bet ya." "The referee is moving in to break them up, but Louis finally pushes the contender away, and it's an upper cut to the chin. The contender is hanging on, now he's backing away. Louis catches him with a short left to the jaw." A tired of murmuring ascent poured out the doors and into the yard. "Another left, and another left. Louis is saving that mighty right." The mutter in the store had grown into a baby roar and it was pierced by the clanging of a bell and the announcer's "That's the bell for round three, ladies and gentlemen." [coughs]
Yes? "He's got Louis against the ropes and now it's a left to the body, a right to the ribs, another right to the body. It looks like it was low. Yes ladies and gentlemen, the referee is signaling but the contender keeps raining the blows on Louis. It's another to the body. It looks like Louis is going down." My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another black man hanging on a tree, one more woman ambushed and raped, a black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps, it was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful. The men in the store stood away from the walls and at attention. Women greedily clutched the babes on their laps while on the porch the shufflings and smiles, the flirtings and pinchings of a few minutes before were gone. This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true. The accusations that we were little lower than—Sorry [coughs]—It would all be true. The accusations—Sorry.
Can we start again with "My race groaned"?
My brother, this is taking me now. I'm doing the best I can. Please.
I know, I know.
I didn't consider that I would be doing anything other than a reading. That's another preparation. I'll try.
My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,
** yet another black man hanging on a tree, one more woman ambushed and raped,
** a black boy whipped and maimed. It was hounds on the trail of a man running through slimy swamps, it was a white woman slapping her maid for being forgetful.
** The men in the store stood away from the walls and at attention. Women greedily clutched the babes on their laps while on the porch the shufflings and smiles, the flirtings and pinchings of a few minutes before were gone. This might be the end of the world.
** If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true. The accusations that we were lower types of human beings, only a little higher than the apes. True that we were stupid, and ugly, and lazy, and dirty, and unlucky, and most of all that God himself hated us and ordained us to be hewers of wood, drawers of water, world without end. Amen. We didn't breathe, we didn't hope, we waited.
For the last piece if you could just start with "champion of the [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ."
No, I, that wouldn't—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] OK.
That doesn't follow either to. I have to do this. I have to do the next, you can cut it if you like. Yeah? "He's off the ropes ladies and gentlemen. He's moving to the center of the ring. And now it looks like Joe is mad. He's caught Carnera. With a left hook to the head, a right hook to the head, it's a left jab to the body, another left to the head, There's a left cross, a right to the head. The contender's right eye is bleeding. He can't seem to keep his block up. Louis is penetrating every block. The referee is moving in but Louis sends a left to the body. It's an uppercut to the chin, the contender's dropping. He's on the canvas ladies and gentlemen."
Babies slid to the floor, women stood up, men leaned toward the radio.
** "Here's the referee, he's counting one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, is the contender trying to get up again?" All the people in the store shouted, "No!"
** "Eight, nine, ten." There were only a few sounds from the audience. They seemed to be holding themselves in against tremendous pressure. The man said, "The fight is all over ladies and gentlemen. Here, let's get the microphone over to the referee. Here he is. He's got the Brown Bomber's hand, he's holding it up. Here he is." And then that voice, husky, familiar, came to wash over us. It said, "The winner and still Heavyweight Champion of the World, Joe Louis." Champion of the World, a black boy, some black mother's son, some black father's son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.
** Some of the men went behind the store and poured white lightning into their soft drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers. It would take an hour or more before the people would leave the store and head for home. Those who lived too far had made arrangements to stay in town. You see, it wouldn't do for a black man and his family to be caught on the lonely country road in the South when Joe Louis had just proved that a black man was the strongest person in the world.
** That's it.