Tonight PBS’s American Masters series debuts “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” the first-ever feature documentary on the writer.
The Paris Review’s George Plimpton, himself the star of a 2014 American Masters documentary, interviewed Angelou onstage at 92Y in 1988. That conversation laid the groundwork for Angelou’s Art of Fiction interview, which appeared in our Fall 1990 issue. But the audio from that night at 92Y is worth listening to in its own right—it finds both of them in rare form. As Plimpton wrote, Angelou’s “presence dominated the proceedings. Many of her remarks drew fervid applause, especially those which reflected her views on racial problems, the need to persevere, and ‘courage.’ She is an extraordinary performer and has a powerful stage presence.”
I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues … In all my work, in the movies I write, the lyrics, the poetry, the prose, the essays, I am saying that we may encounter many defeats—maybe it’s imperative that we encounter the defeats—but we are much stronger than we appear to be and maybe much better than we allow ourselves to be. Human beings are more alike than unalike. There’s no real mystique. Every human being, every Jew, Christian, backslider, Muslim, Shintoist, Zen Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, every human being wants a nice place to live, a good place for the children to go to school, healthy children, somebody to love, the courage, the unmitigated gall to accept love in return, someplace to party on Saturday or Sunday night, and someplace to perpetuate that God. There’s no mystique. None. And if I’m right in my work, that’s what my work says.
Listen to their hour-long exchange below. We owe these recordings to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, who worked in the art department at The Paris Review and volunteered as an archivist at 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center.