by Cyrus Webb for Conversations Magazine
Conversations has had its share of exclusive interviews, however, this is one of the most powerful ones ever! Marcia Ann Gillespie, one of the co-authors of MAYA ANGELOU: A Glorious Celebration took out time out of her busy schedule to talk about herself, her relationship with Dr. Angelou and why this book was a labor of love.
Marcia, thank you for taking out the time to talk with us. Before we get into your current project involving the life of Maya Angelou, tell our readers about who you are.
I am an African American woman, who takes great joy and pride in my ancestry and in being part of this extraordinary tribe of survivors and achievers, dreamers and believers. I was born and raised in a village on Long Island New York amidst a Black community made up mainly of folk from the south, North Carolina in particular. The youngest of two daughters born into a family of strivers and activists, I was constantly being reminded to do well in school, encouraged to read and to ask questions, to use my mind.
What role did your parents have in the way you evolved as a person?
My folks were people of deep faith who always strove to live the song. Both were natural leaders: My mom headed the PTA and served on the town's board of education. My father headed the local civic association and his local Masonic lodge. Both were active in the NAACP and engaged in civil rights. And although my father had little formal education, he was determined that we were going to get the educational opportunities that he'd been denied. From them I learned the importance of standing up for the things you believe in. They were my role models and my heroes who always encouraged me to dream and to go for my dreams, to take pride in myself, and believe in myself, and to live in the world.
I had the great fortune of coming of age in the midst of the modern civil rights movement and to be a foot soldier in the struggle, taking part in protests, marches and rallies. I went to college (Lake Forest College) on scholarships in 1962, majored in American studies and planned to go to grad school after working for a couple of years to save money. When I graduated in 1966 I was hired as a researcher at Time Inc in New York City and discovered that I loved working on books and magazines.
Many know you from your years with Essence Magazine. Tell us about how that developed.
In 1970 I was working on a Black history book and fired up about the need for more books and magazines that told our story when Essence magazine was launched.
I never imagined that one year later I would be the editor in chief. It was likely a fairy tale come true. For the rest of the decade I served as the editor and turned what had been a floundering publication into the fastest growing magazine in America. But far more important every day I was working to celebrate, inspire and inform Black women, helping to sing our song. When I decided to leave Essence after the magazine's 10th anniversary I did so knowing that it was and would be an enduring success and now it was time for me to test my wings.
I moved to Jamaica in the West Indies and lived and worked there for several years. When I returned to the States I became more involved with the Women's Movement and became a contributing editor at Ms. magazine writing a regular column, then the magazine's executive editor and later the editor in chief. In 2002 I stepped down as Ms magazine's editor in chief, after ten years in that capacity. Now I've started a new phase as a full time writer.
Your friendship with Dr. Angelou has spanned many years. Why did you think it was the time now to put together a tribute of her life now?
I've known Dr. Maya Angelou and called her friend for more than 35 years, since she reached out to me when I was a fledgling editor in chief at Essence. But I never expected or planned to write a book about her. Dr. Richard Long, one of my collaborators on this project, was the one who came up with the idea of doing a scrapbook with Rosa Johnson Butler (Dr A's niece and archivist) using some of the photos from her archives. I was asked to join the party after their original idea didn't quite pan out.
Although I've known Dr Angelou for a very long time and spent many many wonderful days in her company and home I had no idea that she was such a great pack rat who kept hundreds of photos, and all drafts of her many works, as well as so many other things from her journey. I spent several days in North Carolina exploring and marveling at this treasure trove and in the midst of it I realized that instead of a scrapbook we needed to do a full biography celebrating the extraordinary woman and her remarkable life. I immediately began reading and rereading everything she had written, the interviews she's given over the years, and many of the articles and profiles that have been written about her. I also drew on the many, many conversations that we have shared in the past and continued to share as I worked on the manuscript. And then for the next eight months I wrote and rewrote the book.
In the midst of writing the book and after I'd completed the manuscript Rosa Johnson Butler, Janet Hill, the editor of this book, and I also spent days over many months going over every photo, culling and editing. Once we made our final selects Rosa sorted through the rights and permission, tracking down and reaching out to the many photographers whose work we wanted to use. I then began to work on the captions, often spending hours with Dr. Angelou discussing each photo and invariably getting wonderful anecdotes from her, many of which I incorporated in the final draft of the book.
The book was co-written with Rosa Johnson Butler and Richard Long with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey. How did the entire process develop?
It took several years to get this book completed, more than originally anticipated: computer crashes, personal emergencies and other life complications, as well as the challenge of getting all the permissions from so many different people and organizations. At times I'm sure we all despaired ever getting through it all, but the one person who kept faith was our editor.
When all was said and done last year, I suggested that we time the publication to coincide with Dr. Angelou's 80th birthday and everyone agreed. In retrospect I think the all the delays we experienced along the way was really in divine order. This book was written to honor and celebrate Maya Angelou life and work. Publishing it to coincide with this milestone birthday was a perfect bouquet from us to her. Thanks to Rosa and Richard who asked Oprah to write the forward made even sweeter by her heartfelt contribution.
I was on pins and needles waiting for the book to come out because I so wanted Maya to be pleased and other than looking at the photos she had refused to read the manuscript, saying that she wanted to wait until it was in print. More than anything I wanted her to be pleased. To my relief and delight she told me it was "beautiful" and that she loved the writing, the photos, the design. We sat in her kitchen one day and she paid me the ultimate compliment of reading passages of the book that she particularly loved back to me. I was in tears.
One of things that I have learned from her life is the need to take advantage of the opportunities we are given. What are some of the lessons you have learned from her?
You ask what are some of the lessons I've learned from Maya Angelou? I hardly know where to begin there are so many. I hope I've learned to become more gracious, thankful and giving from her example. She is one of the most thoughtful people I know. I've learned to be a better friend from her because she constantly emphasizes the importance of caring for our friendships. I've learned to laugh at myself more and to be more of a risk taker because time and time again I've watched her step out on faith and heard her laugh about her own missteps and foibles. I've learned to be a better listener from her and that sometimes silence is the best response because when you are in her company you are always aware that she is constantly listening to things said and unspoken. She listens with her entire being and she remembers everything.
Although I don't share her gift of total recall, I most certainly do try to follow her example and have discovered so much about myself and others as a result. I've learned the value of sweet speech from her. I've listened closely as she's challenged and/or corrected someone with carefully chosen words that bring honey not hurt. And I am always reminded of the importance of doing ones personal and professional homework by watching how disciplined she is in her pursuit of information, in how hard she works at her writing, in her quest for greater self understanding and spiritual growth.
Can you share with our readers how she felt when you all presented the project?
I hope that readers, especially younger readers of this book will come away more committed to pursuing their own dreams. Maya Angelou's life reminds us that the road may not always be straight, that there will be challenges, that we may stumble and occasionally lose our way, but one can pick oneself up and forge on. You have to be prepared to work at living, not simply being alive. If you find something you love, discover your talent(s) don't waste it, work at perfecting it. Respect yourself and others. Have faith in yourself and always keep faith with the higher power, the Creator of it all.
The book was released just days before her 80th birthday, her birthday being the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assasinated. What significance does the day have for you seeing that we celebrate her life and his death?
You're right, the original release of this book also coincided with the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4th which is also Maya Angelou's birthday--a bittersweet coincidence for her and for us all. These two great Americans, great human beings were friends and colleagues who shared a profound and abiding belief in the possibilities of humankind. In so many ways in her life and work, Dr Angelou has been expressing his philosophy as well as hers.
You have devoted many years of your life to sharing your love of words. What else is in the works for you in the future?
Words have so much power to inspire, transform, inform, to bring joy, love and laughter. Reading is one of my passions. I do love books. I love reading them and I'm determined to keep writing books of my own. Currently I'm working on a memoir about my life and Black life in the 1970s its called When Blacks Became Americans because this was the period when we began to really move into the mainstream of America and claim our places at the table. It was also the period when I was the editor in chief of Essence and in that capacity met and interacted with so many of the folk who were blazing new trails for us all. So its my personal story but it's also a social history which—fingers crossed—I hope will resonate for many readers.
When it comes to giving advice to others I would echo the advice Maya Angelou's mother gave to her—"just do your work".
What advice would you have for aspiring writers, actors or anyone who is looking to be a professional in the arts?
You may not ever become rich or famous, but you can be good at what you do. So take pride in your work, keep perfecting your work, but always strive to enrich your life, count your blessings, love and nurture you friends and family, build strong positive relationships and take time to notice, explore and savor the wonders of this world and of this life cause we only have this one shot at it.
Marcia, thank you so much for your time. We look forward to your upcoming work.