The NYPL Podcast
Podcast #56: Tavis Smiley on Maya Angelou
Tavis Smiley's daily podcast Tavis Talks is a popular news and opinion program from BlogTalkRadio. He also currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS and The Tavis Smiley Show on PRI. But Smiley has been a well-known personality since 1991, becoming an important media figure, author, editor, and entrepreneur. In 2008, he received the Du Bois Medal from Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Recently, Smiley appeared at Books at Noon and we're pleased to present the talk for this week's episode of the New York Public Library podcast. In this episode you'll hear Smiley discuss his long friendship with the late Maya Angelou.
Tavis Smiley spoke about a pivotal trip to Africa he took with Maya Angelou:
“That trip, being exposed to Maya and all these other personalities that I mentioned earlier, sitting and listening and talking to her: I'm a twenty-something year-old kid, and for young black men this just doesn't happen. This just doesn't happen that young black men are told that their lives matter. It's a much larger conversation, given what we are witnessing every day in this country, in New York, and beyond. I won't get into that now. But to be told that you matter and to be told that your opinions matter, and to be asked what you think about this, that, and the other, and to be invited to interrogate this world class intellectual, to be invited to disagree with her (she wants to know why you feel this way; she wants this exchange): who does that? Who has this experience as a twenty-something year-old black man in this country? And who has this up against Maya Angelou? That just doesn't happen. So the journey of me figuring out that there was something in the world for me to do, that I had a voice, that I had a gift, and that I had to use that, that whole journey begins in this two week period when we're in Africa.”
There were a number of subjects Smiley and Angelou discussed during their twenty-eight year relationship, and sometimes the two did disagree on topics such as Clarence Thomas and the N word. Smiley noted that one of the reasons they were able to have great conversations is that they admitted inquisitiveness and plasticity into their talks:
“What great conversation does, and I attempt to do this every night on PBS, I think what great conversation does is it challenges us to reexamine the assumptions that we hold. It helps us to expand our inventory of ideas. That's what great conversation does. And so, Maya Angelou was never afraid to have her assumptions reexamined. She was always interested, as a curious person, in expanding her inventory of ideas and perhaps rethinking her worldview. She was always open to that.”
Part of the magic of Smiley's relationship with Angelou was her ability to connect him with those he admired, even when it was no longer possible to meet them:
“Maya was a sort of cosmic connection to all of the people who I wish I had known. She was my cosmic connection to James Baldwin, her dear friend. She was my cosmic connection to Malcolm X, her friend. My cosmic connection to my hero, Dr. King, who was her friend. And how special does that make Maya that she was friend to both Malcolm and to Martin? Think about that. She's my connection to Nina Simone… On, on, on the list goes.”
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