Maya Angelou at peace with 'courteous' rapper Common

theGRIO Q&A - Dr. Maya Angelou talks receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, as well as her disapproval of the rapper Common's use of the n-word...

Dr. Maya Angelou will be featured in two of BET’s upcoming specials, Soulmates: Dr. Maya Angelou and Common, and the 2012 BET Honors.

Soulmates: Dr. Maya Angelou and Common, which premieres Sunday at 11am/10c, brings together Dr. Angelou with the celebrated hip hop artist Common, resulting in an unforgettable TV moment.

Dr. Angelou was also honored during the 2012 Bet Honors which will airs Monday, at 9pm/8c. During the ceremony, the iconic poet/author was given a literary arts awards from first lady Michelle Obama. Other honorees include Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Spike Lee, and the Tuskegee Airmen.

In an interview with theGrio, Dr. Angelou talked about her being honored by BET and also discussed receiving the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, as well as her disapproval of the rapper Common’s use of the n-word.

theGrio: What was it like taking part in the Soul Mates project that you did with Common?

Dr. Maya Angelou: I enjoyed it very much. He is a very intelligent man, and like many southern black men, he is very courteous.

Common: ‘No regrets’ on n-word track with Maya Angelou (VIDEO)

What is the message that you hope viewers take away from Soul Mates?

I am looking forward to viewers seeing how at ease we are with each other and by seeing that, they may be encouraged to know that people from different generations can still talk to each other. I mean I’m 83, and he’s young, but we got along very well and he didn’t have to translate what I had to say nor did I have to translate what he had to say. Because of respect, you can talk across generations, across ages and have a courteous and charming conversation.


You recently received a prestigious award from Michelle Obama during the BET Honors. What was that experience like?

It was wonderful to see the actresses enact some of my poems. Miss. Cicely Tyson, Miss. Queen Latifah, Miss. Jill Scott, and Miss. Willow Smith all recited poetry of mine.

After the actresses finished enlivening my work, Miss. Tyson came to the lip of my stage and spoke directly to me and she said, “sister we have been together over many decades, traveling these stage board, and I am delighted to introduce the person that is really here to introduce you.” I couldn’t imagine who that could be. And she introduced our first lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama.

I was so pleased and she talked for about 10 minutes about my work, and its impact on her and her husband over the last 20 years. It was a grand occasion.

How did you feel when you were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Obama last year?

I accepted the honor, while remembering my people. We’re the group most recently imprisoned in slavery at everybody’s agreement, legally enslaved. And there I was receiving the Medal of Freedom, I could hardly speak. And to receive that honor from a black president, I thought to myself ‘oh my goodness.’ Then I thought about all the other people, all the Jews, the Muslims, and Buddhists that came to the United States hoping to find a safe place, safe from religious persecution, racial persecution and sexual persecution. When I received that Medal of Freedom I thought of everybody. So in my silence, I was grateful and received the medal for every living soul.

Did you ever imagine that there would be a black president of the United States during your lifetime?

No I didn’t. I know that Reverend King, with whom I was close, at one time said in 40 years there would be a black president, and he was right. But I didn’t believe it, no. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime. I’m so grateful to have lived long enough to see it.
Do you think that Black History Month is still needed, and do you think that American’s hold it up with the same regards in which we should?

Yes it is still needed. We will need to celebrate the contribution of African-Americans and the tragedies and pain too until there is no need for it. Until African-American history is melded into all American history and is taught when a student goes into a classroom and studies American history he or she will study African-American history, Native American history and all American history as one.

But that’s going to be some time and until that time we need to remind ourselves and others that we have been here a long time and we’ve already been paid for, we owe no debt to history, none. We have been here working without compensation since 1619. The end of slavery in the 1860’s did not really end racial prejudice. So in the 1960s we began to see the beginning of fair play, so that black people could sit on the buses and street cars, and black people could live in some places where they wanted to.

In the 50s and 60s many black people decided that they could stop teaching the children that everything counted on them, because before that all black people were told the whole race is counting on you to be somebody, you have to lift us up. But when the 50s and 60s came some black ‘bougies’ came and said ‘it’s all over, we have been integrated’ and that was the most stupid thing to think. So they stopped teaching the children. Alas we have a generation of young men and women who hardly know the work and the sacrifice of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, or Fannie Lou Hamer or Medgar Evers. They don’t even know their names, it’s shocking.

It’s imperative that we keep Black History Month going.

Why were you disappointed with Common for use of the n-word on his song “The Dreamer?”

I didn’t think he would use it on the work he and I had done together. He knows I am appalled at the word, I hate it, because it was created to dehumanize people. And I know people say, ‘I can use because I don’t mean any harm,’ but the truth is, if you have poison and you bought it in a vile from the pharmacy and it has a little picture on if of skull and bones on it, you can take that content and pour it into Bavarian crystal, but it’s still poison, it doesn’t matter where it comes from.

Some journalists have asked was I angry with Mr. Common and said ‘no, I refuse to be separated from my people.’ Just next week he may decide to refuse to use that word again.

What is your message to Common and other black people in the public spotlight that use the n-word?

If they can use it, why do they feel angry when a white person uses it? They can’t strip the word of its vulgarity and its meaning of belittling people. They think they can dilute the word of its power. I hope that they can look at the word and realize that black people have tried for hundreds of years to not use it. It was considered a bad word.

Of your many roles that you have taken on as novelist, educator, actress, poet and historian, what are you most proud of and consider to be your legacy?

All of it. I do my best with everything I do. Whether I am directing a movie or writing a poem. If I am teaching a class or cooking dinner for a friend, I do my best at everything that I do. I bring my whole self to it. And I am blessed and grateful that I am appreciated and welcomed.