Tavis Smiley on Loving (and Missing) Maya Angelou Read (INTERVIEW-EBONY)

The veteran journalist discusses his new book on his friendship with the late icon for EBONY magazine.

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For nearly 30 years, Tavis Smiley was able to call a woman who the world knew as an American icon, activist, and leading literary voice, simply “Mother Maya.” His friendship with Maya Angelou formed after a surprising invitation to accompany she and a group of friends to Africa, essentially to carry luggage. Tavis spoke with EBONY as he embarks on a book tour for his newly released book, My Journey With Maya,  in which he shares life lessons, counsel, and inspirations the late heroine lovingly imparted in him. Here he speaks on how Angelou made him a better journalist and how he felt when she told him to be easier on a certain politician.

EBONY: Essentially, this is not a book about Maya Angelou’s life, but more of a coming-of-age and self-discovery story on how Dr. Angelou shaped your life.

Tavis Smiley: I always point out this is the story of MY relationship with her. There are many people who admired and revered her from afar but never had the chance to know what she was like up close. I hope this book [will] take people inside her world and that you get a chance to see how generous, how charitable, how loving, how open, how warm, how witty, and how funny she was. I hope the book allows readers to access some of that.

EBONY: At 22, you were given the opportunity to accompany world-renown activist and legendary author, Maya Angelou, to Africa. How did that experience shape the rest of your life?  

TS: What do you say about being a kid in your 20s and you have an opportunity to accompany Maya Angelou, to Africa, for 2 weeks. I went to carry her bags, however she did not allow that to prevent a friendship from forming.

When I ran for city council and lost I didn’t know what was next, I had no clue what to do next in my life, the trip to Africa with Maya Angelou; was the moment that allowed me to realize, I had so much to do and  so much to live for. On that trip not only am I meeting Maya Angelou, I’m meeting Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba and the great historian, John H. Clarke, meeting all these iconic American and African figures in the diaspora.

Before I heard of Barack Obama, I’m meeting a black president named Jerry John Rawlings, President of Ghana, staying at the presidential palace. [The trip] affirmed that I had a role to play in my own life. This experience allowed me to come back and find my voice once I returned from Africa. That’s why the book started with that trip, because it was such a defining moment in my life and the start to my relationship with Maya Angelou.

EBONY: During the your trip, before the friendship formed, Maya said to you, “If from time to time I seem to be looking through your eyes, that’s only because I want to have as fresh a view as possible.” This phenomenal activist and intellectual took an interest in not only you, but expressed how she much she regarded the youth.  

TS: She was interested in what I thought and what mattered to me. She is a world class intellectual, and I’m a teenager, [she’s] inviting me to disagree with her, challenge her, and to interrogate her. It’s not often the case that young black men are engaged in that way, people [having] a genuine curiosity about what you think, what you feel, what you believe and how you see the world. The confidence that it built in me, that Maya Angelou cared about what I thought, and she’s allowed me to articulate what I thought, that was confidence boost and builder like I’ve never had in my life. By the time I got back to America, I didn’t know what was next but I knew I had the confidence to pull it off.


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