Maya Angelou: The Last Interview

Maya Angelou: The Last Interview

Tuesday, June 3, 2014 3:23 pm

by Toyin Falola

The last person to interview Dr. Maya Angelou was my friend of over two decades, Carlos Moore, an African Cuban who resides in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. We spoke only two days ago, as he was planning to visit Maya again with his Guadeloupian wife, Ayeola, an exquisite dancer and painter. They were scheduled to travel to see her in her home in Winston Salem, NC, on June 16th.

Maya had been helping Moore on a documentary film project, BLOOD AT THE ROOTS, an exploration of the roots of racism, going back to the 8th century AD, when the first mass deportations of African populations for the purpose of enslavement in the Middle East took place. For Moore, that was the very beginning of the concept of racial slavery. It was in that context, and assisted by an African-Canadian film crew, that he flew to Winston Salem, on 19 April, for the fateful two-hour interview that Dr. Angelou was to grant him. A great friendship of 50 years linked them.

Forty-eight hours ago, we spoke about Maya, not knowing that two days later, she would be dead. It was very painful for me to send him a note that Maya was gone. I knew Maya Angelou personally, but our encounter is not the subject of this piece, today. Rather, I turn to this last project to which she had lent her voice and support, and to the deep friendship she entertained with a man whom she proudly designated as “my son Carlos”.

Today, Carlos´ name circles around the world, on account of Maya Angelou´s death. But it is precisely because it was to him, and the film project he is doggedly pursuing, that Dr. Angelou chose to utter her last words to this world. That interview, because of the nature of its subject, during times when we are witnessing the brutal re-emergence of racism worldwide, will enter history in a special way.

Some may wonder who is this man, to whom Maya Angelou reserved her parting words. But, to some of us, Carlos needs no introduction. He fought Fidel Castro for over three decades to a standstill, arguing from his many places of exile that Marxist socialism did not erase racism in Cuba, or in anywhere else for that matter. He defied that regime in proclaiming that blacks continued to be its victims, as before the Revolution. Imprisoned twice on charges of “racial subversion”, he fled Cuba into exile through the embassy of Guinea, in late 1963, residing in various places, including Nigeria, where he became a close friend of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He wrote the latter´s biography at his request. Fela: This Bitch of a Life, published to much acclaim in 1982, in Great Britain and France, was the first biography ever of an African artist and became a classic; the indispensable book on Fela.

When the musical Fela on Broadway was released, a few years ago, all those who knew the Fela biography saw the clear evidences of what appeared to be brazen intellectual looting. And, indeed, Carlos Moore sued. A host of people, on several continents, including me, rallied to his side. Assisted by Spike Lee, who helped provide legal defence, Susan Taylor, Ruby Dee and, of course, Maya Angelou, Moore prevailed after a tough two-year battle. The Broadway producers threw in the hat and settled.

Moore´s out of court settlement was decent, but rather than dreaming of buying a house on the lake, he placed it at the service of a greater cause: the making of a historical documentary on the origins of racism, with Maya Angelou and Aime Cesaire (the Martiniquan poet and philosopher responsible for the founding of the radical Negritude Movement), at the centre of it. To those who may not know, Carlos was the one who convened the largest gathering ever on Negritude, in Miami, Florida, on February 26-28, 1987. It was at that three-day conference, that Césaire delivered his now famous “Discourse on Negritude”, his message to posterity. That speech is now considered to be an essential manifesto of the global struggle against racism.

Maya Angelou was there, along with other notable black scholars – John Henrik Clarke, Rex Nettleford (Jamaica), Alex Haley, St Clair Drake, Lelia Gonzalez and Abdias Nascimento from Brazil, Manuael Zapata Olivella from Colombia, Léopold Sedar Senghor from Senegal, and a host of other brilliant thinkers, scholars and artists from four continents. Until today, Maya Angelou was the only surviving icon who had attended that amazing conference. Part of her last interview for the Blood at the Roots film project, consist of her reflections on the Negritude Movement, on Césaire and his signal contributions, on Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and the issues that made these men and women so special to the world. Those were the people with whom Maya Angelou kept company and faith for long decades, in her untiring struggle to erase racism from the face of the planet.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

To add what you might call a gossip, but known to a few of us: Césaire and Senghor were not really on talking terms for twenty years prior to the Miami conference. I hold the view that Carlos Moore´s stature was the only element capable of bringing them together, in the same room, to deliver their antithetical visions on black emancipation, which Senhgor saw in terms that many considered as alienating and consequently dismissed as assimilationist. If you knew Senghor as a poet, you may not know that he was a very reticent figure. I met him three times and getting three sentences out of Senghor’s mouth was a problem. But that story of how it was possible to convince both men to speak their last word at the same forum is something to be told another day.

Carlos’s interview with Dr. Angelou, the very last one – and lasting two hours! – is now set to become one of the greatest treasures of this era. I understand that it was originally intended to be the backbone of the Blood at the Roots film project, along with Césaire´s “Discourse on Negritude”. Now, it too, will be available to prosperity, in its integrity. So, when it will be released, as part of that film project, we are bound to have a definitive document about this era that will nurture us and the generations to come.

Carlos has done it again, and we owe him. Our collective debt to this African Cuban, now in his 71st year, for this interview with our sister Maya Angelou (and equally for Césaire´s last political message), is immense.

— Professor Toyin Falola, Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, USA

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