Looking Back: A Conversation With Dr. Maya Angelou
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Celebrated American icon Dr. Maya Angelou has passed at the age of 86. Here is an exclusive interview ESSENCE conducted with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and poet in 2009.

Celebrated American icon Dr. Maya Angelou says she doesn’t know what the word retirement means. No matter that she’s in her early 80s and has pretty much done it all, she’s still out there lending her name and her almighty words to the causes she passionately believes in the most. The latest on her list include a fundraising appearance earlier this week for the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity based in North Carolina at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. Then there is her appearance tomorrow at New York’s Riverside Church where she will participate in “Saving The Race: The Human Race” presented by the Community Healing Network, Inc. as part of a global movement for interracial healing.

ESSENCE.com sat down with the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and poet in her beautiful home in Harlem for an exclusive interview about the mission and services of the Angelou Center, why she believes in the power of mentoring and the one thing the world needs now more than ever before.

ESSENCE.COM: What makes the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity so special?
MAYA ANGELOU: At first it was known as the Maya Angelou Research Institute but that seemed to draw a line keeping others out. My mother once told me when I told her I wasn’t making any friends and that nobody liked me, that if a person draws a line excluding you, you draw a bigger line including them. So we decided to include other health inequities found amongst poor Whites and sometimes health inequities has more to do with money and cast than with race. We’re trying to look at the ailments that besiege the poor. You know who is mostly affected by diabetes? Not African-Americans but Native Americans, then Latinos and then African-Americans. We’re also looking at heart disease and of course HIV. We want to find out the cause and bring an end to these disparities.

ESSENCE.COM: How do you think we can start bridging the gap for those who don’t have access to decent healthcare?
ANGELOU: First we as a society have to get out denial. We’re in denial about so many things like the Holocaust never happened or that slavery wasn’t all that. We have to have enough courage to confess history then maybe we can see how we are responsible for the ways of the world we have created. We’re responsible for the time we take up and the space we occupy. We’re responsible for the Asian boy who can’t afford good dental work or the White girl who can’t afford the thorough medical exam to see why she’s anemic. Everybody needs us and we have to provide healthcare. We have to join together, churches, synagogues, Muslim and Buddhist temples, and see what we can do to start healing the body and the psyche.

ESSENCE.COM: What are some of the things you do that keep you feeling good?

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ANGELOU: I’m a vitamin C person and I like the chewables. I never have colds. I also love vegetables and fruits, that’s my blessing. I’m not much of a meat eater, though I am not a vegetarian. I eat good food that is healthily prepared. I’m working on a new cookbook called, “Great Food All Day Long.” I’m encouraging people to eat great food but use portion control. My encouragement is to cook up something so delicious you won’t have to have a lot of it. You have a few bites, some water, then come back and have some more a few hours later. Before you know it, you will be full.

ESSENCE.COM: You’ll be at the “Save the Race: The Human Race” event on Saturday. Why do you think interracial reconciliation is needed today?
ANGELOU: Well, because we have such a great fear of each other and a fear of ourselves. September 11th opened the door to so much fear and some of our leaders used that incident to encourage us to be afraid. What I would hope that we could do is continue to explore our courage as Americans and remember who we are…without a doubt, the most generous people in the world. We have more charities in this country then all together put together in the world. We’re pretty fantastic as a nation but we have a long way to go. Looking at President Obama, and seeing how far we have come, we’re pretty hot. I’m proud to be an American.

ESSENCE.COM: One of the guests joining you at this event will be Common. What do you like about him?
ANGELOU: He’s very intelligent and he’s funny. He’ll be joined by Freddie Jackson Tom Joyner and George Faison.

ESSENCE.COM: Oprah Winfrey calls you her mentor and Michelle Obama has spoken about the importance of having mentors. What do you believe is the role of a mentor?
ANGELOU: First, put the weight where it belongs and that’s on an older person. It behooves us to say to younger women, I have been down that road. If you go there in the dark, down on the left side is a big hole where you can fall in and break your foot. It is my responsibility to say that and the responsibility of the person coming along to say thank you. There is a Chinese saying that goes when the student is ready, the teacher appears. The student must ready herself.