Power moves: A conversation with Maya Angelou and Eleanor Holmes Norton

By Lise Funderburg

August, 1998

Maya Angelou and Eleanor Holmes Norton talk about the power that every Black woman has and how she can fulfill her potential for our common good.

Poet Maya Angelou and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton are both living examples of Black women who make a difference–indeed, make history–by embracing their own power and using it wisely. The congresswoman, a relentless civil-fights activist and brilliant legal scholar, is in her fourth elected term as the representative of a constituency of more than 500,000 in the nation’s capital. Dr. Angelou–poet, wise woman and teacher–engages audiences far and wide with a writer’s commanding grace, a sociologist’s watchful eye, and a large, encompassing heart. The President of the United States acknowledged the power of her poetic vision when he had her read her work to seal his 1993 inauguration.

Essence editors recognized that the insights of these two women would be more than worth the challenge of bringing them together in conversation. With freelance writer Lise Funderburg serving as both facilitator and fly on the wall, the three-hour exchange–in Angelou’s comfortable art-filled Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home–was wide ranging, clear, eyed and profound. Following are highlights of their remarkable discussion.

ESSENCE: What is the source of your personal power?

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Every woman has to decide where her personal power comes from, and if you’re a Black woman your personal power has got to come from some understanding of identity.

MAYA ANGELOU: Many readers will think Eleanor Holmes Norton was just born with power, like you’re born with a hand. Or that I was born with it. But if you happen to have the blessing to have been born Black and the extra blessing to have been born a female and an American, then each filament of power you have, you have laid it and layered it carefully, not like someone from a family whose name makes people shiver in the marketplace–Rockefeller, DuPont, Kennedy.

So I would say the power I have first comes directly from being a descendant of people whose powerful history makes me humble. I would think, if I had been born anything other than Black and other than a Black American woman, that I had done something wrong in a former life and God was making me pay for it.

It is so amazing to see where we have come from: In this country, we were meant to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, world without end. Our people not only survived that, but within 20 years of being freed from the shackles of slavery, there were Black men who were vying for the highest positions in their states as attorneys general, governors, senators. This heritage is what gives me my initial power.

A powerful sense of self involves humility, but never modesty. Modesty is a learned affectation that’s very dangerous. But humility comes from within. It says someone went before me, and I am here to try to make a path for someone who is yet to come. Somehow good attracts good and, in turn, you do get some external power. If you start with the power inside you, you won’t abuse external power when you get it. Be prayerful that your use of it will be constructive instead of destructive. Be careful and diligent and watchful that you don’t abuse power to the detriment of others who have less.

ESSENCE: It shouldn’t be glossed over, Congresswoman Norton, that you have been elected by half a million people who chose you to speak for them.

NORTON: Absolutely. But politicians are completely without power until these people give it to us. And you know what? It’s theirs to take away. I am one of 13 Black women in Congressman all-time record.

Now, the difference between Maya and me is that though she may not speak for people in some formal sense, my God, she speaks to them and they listen! And so the artist can–through her talent–get people to listen and to think differently. In the age of mass media, it is very important for Black people to be clear that we shouldn’t see power just in the narrow political sense. Maya and Oprah have the ability to influence vast numbers of people and events. The politician often feels that she must say exactly what they want to hear or she will lose her power. But I have learned that lacking the gift of the artist, I would like to join my power as often as possible with Black women like Maya who have my values and who have an entirely different and wonderfully effective way of reaching people.

ANGELOU: Well, I agree, and I make myself available to Black politicians because I know that if these two powers are linked something wonderful happens. If a person is running for office and I come and recite. “And Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman,” it just adds to her power. The one hand trying to wash itself is a pitiful spectacle, but when one hand washes the other, power is increased, and it becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The Value of Moral Authority

NORTON: Power in the best sense is not power for yourself, but power that you share with your community. It occurs to me that many Black people associate power with abuse of power because they’ve only known power as abuse. If you end up believing power is what the White man has, then you feel powerless.

I am constantly around Black people who talk about being powerless. Now, Maya and I both grew up in segregated societies. But I tell you, even in the segregated school system of the District of Columbia, surrounded by White people who could go to schools and theaters we couldn’t go to, I never felt powerless as a Black child. The whole time there were Jim Crow laws–one of the great shames and scars on the American polity–our teachers and parents never said, “You are victims.” They never said, “We are powerless people.”

ANGELOU: Uh-uh. “Put your head up.”

NORTON: “Put your head up. Understand that people who would segregate you are pitiful!”

ANGELOU: “Ignorant.”

NORTON: That was a very good word they used. Ignorant. And the reason Black people have had moral authority is that we always promised we would never abuse power. And we better watch out, because not abusing power is the only way to keep our moral authority. Yes, we want power. That’s why we had a Civil Rights Movement. But we will never treat White people the way they have treated us. Or else we’d be the same as they are. It’s a real test for Black people as we gain more and more positions of power.

ANGELOU: In some cases, people say they want change. What they really want is exchange. Now, that is not necessarily progress. [Laughter]

Real power is like electricity. We can’t see it. You can plug into an electrical outlet, those two little holes in the wall, and light up this room. You can light up a surgery. Or you can electrocute a person strapped in a chair. Power makes no demands. It says, “If you’re intelligent, you will use me intelligently. If you’re not, you will use me with deception.” It’s up to you.

You use power according to how you acknowledge it inside yourself. Determine your goal or destination–and know why you want to go there. A number of young women today are having babies because they want to get out of the house. So they go on welfare before they finish junior high school. If they are encouraged to set a destination just a little bit farther than they can reach–not so far that they become discouraged, but just a little farther than they can reach–they might make different choices. The only people to encourage them are us: the politicians, the preachers and the artists. Because the parents, for the most part, have conceded. NORTON: Or feel overpowered by the media and society. That’s why it’s so important that we feel our own power.

Empowering Black Children

ESSENCE: Can you each recall an episode when you had your first inklings of power as young Black girls or women?

ANGELOU: Two incidents having to do with my mom liberated me to think of myself as having some power. When I was 15, and a month and a half out of school, my mother asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I want a job.” She said, “All right, go getone.” I wanted to become a conductor on the streetcar in San Francisco where we were living, because I had seen women in their suits with the sharp little cap. So I went down to the streetcar offices, and the people just laughed at me. They wouldn’t even give me an application. I came back home crying.

My mother asked me, “Why do you think they wouldn’t give you an application?” I said, “Because I’m a Negro.” She asked, “Do you want the job?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Go get it! I will give you money. Every morning you get down there before the secretaries are there. Take yourself a good book. Now, when lunchtime comes, don’t leave until they leave. But when they leave, you go and give yourself a good lunch. But be back before the secretaries, if you really want that job.”

Three days later I was so sorry I had made that commitment but I couldn’t take it back. [Laughter] Those people did everything but spit on me. I took Tolstoy, I took Gorky–the heavy Russian writers–and I sat there. The secretaries would bump up against my legs as they were leaving. They stood over me. They called me every name you could imagine. But finally I got an application. Within a month I had a job. I was the first Black conductor on the streetcars of San Francisco. It cost me the earth, but I got the job.

Then, I left home at 17. My son was 2 or 3 months old. My mother had a 14-room house, a housekeeper, all that. But she let me go. I had two jobs. I took no money from her, but I’d go and eat with her once a month. Once a month she would cook for me, whatever my favorite was. When I was 20, there was the biggest thing that ever happened to me besides the birth of my son. My mother and I were walking down the street from her house. We got to the bottom of the hill, and she said, “Baby, you know something? I think you’re the greatest woman I’ve ever known.” I looked at this pretty little woman, and she said, “You’re very smart, and you’re very kind, and those virtues don’t always go together. Give me a kiss.” I gave her a kiss. I crossed the street and caught the streetcar. I sat there and thought, Suppose she’s right? Suppose I really am somebody? My mother is a woman who is too mean to lie. That was 50 years ago.

NORTON: I think back to when I was 7. There was a Safeway grocery a block away from where we lived, and my grandmother said, “All right, Eleanor, we’re going to send you around today. I want you to get three lamb chops and a loaf of bread.” Now I know, but it took years to understand what she was doing.

When I got back, my grandmother said, “Now tell me what did you do?” I said, “Well, Grandmother, I asked for the three chops, and the man said, `This one?’ And I said, `Oh, no, not that one; this one.’ And he gave me the ones I asked for.”

She said, “Eleanor, that’s very good.” But that was not the end of it. That hot summer evening we’re sitting on the porch, people walking by, nodding “How are you, Miz Holmes?” to my grandmother. “Come on up here,” she said. “Do you know what this child did today? Sent her to the Safeway to get three lamb chops…” I think the story probably got embellished. “You know, she’s only 7. Man tried to give her a bad chop, but do you know that this child told him no, she didn’t want that one. She wanted this one!”

Here my grandmother was, bragging on me as people came up the street. At 7 years old, I had made a White man in a Safeway do what I said he should do, and my grandmother thought it so notable that she was telling everybody on the block.

So I know that this kind of empowerment can come from within–in small ways; from within your family is best. When Maya’s mother said to her, “You’re the smartest person I know,” she meant: “Let me speak up and say it in words just in case all that I have done up to now hasn’t communicated how much I think of you.”

And her telling you to go and get that job. Persistence comes from somewhere, and obviously it comes from one’s inner resources, which need nurturing.

Sharing Power With Men

NORTON: Women are still on the brink of certain kinds of power. That’s why you’re not going to see a woman be president of the United States for a little while yet. Now, I want to make clear that I do not think that is what every woman should strive for. We have to find our own stations of power.

ANGELOU: But if you don’t have the appetite to have power, and it is thrust upon you by fate, fortune–you don’t handle it well. But the appetite to be a spokesperson for your gender, for your race, for the whole species–to have this appetite is fabulous! [Laughter] It makes you radiate! Really. You can sit in a room and see this kind of power walk in–can be a short woman, can be a tall woman. Power is so thrilling that people want to get close to it. It’s like being near a stove in the winter.

When I see a man who wants his woman to be powerless, it boggles my mind. Why wouldn’t a man want a powerful woman? Who has his shoulder and his back? I think power is sexy: I don’t mean just sensual, but actually sexy.

So my encouragement to Black women is to see if you have the appetite for power and to acknowledge it, admit it, and then realize you already have it. Then build upon that. My encouragement to Black men is to start to delight in the power of a woman. A powerful woman is not only a great friend to have and a great presence in one’s life, but I suggest that a powerful woman might be more capable of participating in lovemaking.

NORTON: Yes. This suggests the importance of redefining power in other than traditional terms if everybody is to share power. Some men grow quite weary of powerless women who bring nothing to the table or bed but their powerlessness.

ANGELOU: Yes, exactly, and so those men then tend to have affairs with powerful women. There is a power in weakness, but its power is to draw everything from somebody else. It’s not to give.

ESSENCE: So it’s not a healthy power.

ANGELOU: It is not. It will drain you.

NORTON: In a real sense, Black men have got to understand there is no turning back; there is a new woman. Black women have to understand the same. You’ve got to move with your time and with what the times require. Moving forward today means that relationships between men and women are being reinvented in every fundamental respect. There’s no way to get around that and the only question is how we do it in our community. I hope we will choose not to simply imitate the existing patterns in our country, because we start off with a greater pattern of equality that comes out of our history.

We are in a period of demographic imbalance that is very dangerous. The fact is that you can’t have the majority of Black children born to unmarried women who never marry afterward. You can’t have that and still call yourself a people. Fragmented families are contributing to a disproportionate number of Black men going to jail, and so the cycle repeats itself and because of that the community is going down.

How about anchoring values? Even if one doesn’t accept all that the church has to say, if you look at its core values, they are identical to the core values of the Black community that nurtured and helped it survive against impossible odds.

If the church wants to draw young people in beyond coming to Sunday services, have a social time set aside to say “Let’s talk about how Black men and Black women relate to one another.” I would like to have Black women and Black men of every age in groups talking about relationships and how they feel about one an other. What can encourage stable marriage and family in the Black community? Let’s begin with basics. Communication. Now, I don’t know where it’ll lead us, but as long as these two groups are feeling marginalized, I don’t see any way for any repair to take place. The church is a good place to start, but it can bewherever.

ANGELOU: Any institution.

NORTON: The book clubs formed themselves out of something spontaneously. The Million Man March formed itself virtually spontaneously. The Million Woman March formed itself spontaneously. So I know it can happen. But the next step is not even a march! The next step is to get yourself into a living room the way Maya and I are now. Except that living room will have men and women, and it’ll have at least one person open it up by saying, “I feel this way. Now, how do you feel?”

ANGELOU. I agree with that, and I would encourage young Black women in the corporate offices, in the hospitals, in the restaurants as waitresses, at home as homemakers, to plan one hour a week to give to somebody–to an old folks’ home, to an orphanage. Just get up off your behind and go give. An hour. You’ll be amazed. Strangely enough, somehow you get more back than you give. But give only with the intent of giving.

NORTON: For its own reward.

ANGELOU: This is pure power.