Sister Circle: Maya Angelou on the Power of Friendships
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American icon Maya Angelou has passed at 86 years young. The following is an interview between the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and ESSENCE former editor-in-chief Marcia Ann Gillespie in 2011.

For nearly 40 years Dr. Maya Angelou has been my friend, mentor, big sister and other mother. Early this year President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. And she is a national treasure. Here she reminds us that in the Facebook age, the distinction between acquaintance and friend needs to be made clear, and she tells why we should always cherish our friendships with our women friends.

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MARCIA ANN GILLESPIE: There are friends and then there are acquaintances. How do you know when someone is really a friend?

MAYA ANGELOU: There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person; and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able. A woman can say to herself, If I die, I know that my friend, my sister friend will be here to hold up the banner. Now that’s very profound.

M.A.G.: You maintain a wide loving circle, but your aces are the women who in addition to values are age mates you’ve shared decades of laughter, intimate secrets and to-the-bone talk with.

M.A.: Years ago one of the slick White women’s magazines asked if they could photograph me with my closest friends for an issue they were doing on friends. The editor wanted me to bring Oprah. I have 30 years on Oprah. She calls me her friend, her mother, all that. I am very close to her in a motherly way. So I told [the magazine], “I have three dear friends—Dolly McPherson, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford and M.J. Hewitt—they are sisters to me.” Now that Decca and Dolly are dead I can see the perimeters are coming in closer and closer, but I’m still loving, living and giving it my best shot. I fill my days with gratitude, laughter and work and keep on stepping.

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M.A.G.: What do you think of the images of Black women’s friendships in media where we’re pitted against one another, often over men?

M.A.: The sister bonds have been weakened. I tell young women that it’s not smart to put your ace girlfriends to the side because you have a man in your life. Like my mother would say, “Men come and go. But your women friends are always there for you.” Even if you and he are together for 50 years, you still need your sisters.