Dr. Maya Angelou says you have no way of knowing where you're going if you don't know where you've been. "The more you know of your history," she said in an exclusive interview with Huffington Post BlackVoices, "the more liberated you are."
Those themes -- liberation, sacrifice, tribute and celebration -- are at the heart of her new Black History Month special, airing this month on public radio stations across the country. (The full schedule, as well as excerpts from the interviews, can be found here.)
"We need to say we are still here, that we have grown and survived and done better than that -- we have thrived," she said. Young people, she added, "need to hear that now, in 2012 as much as in 1952."
In the interviews, Angelou talks with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who recounts his first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would go on to mentor him during the Civil Rights Movement. Other shows include: Ambassador Andrew Young recalls how his training as a minister helped him navigate the world of diplomacy in the United Nations; Nikky Finney reads her poem "Red Velvet," a meditation on Rosa Parks; Mary J. Blige shares her struggles on her journey to personal freedom; and Dr. Julianne Malveaux remembers how time spent after school with the Black Panthers introduced her to activism.
Although she is excited at the progress of African Americans, she worries that some have become increasingly removed from the hard-fought struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the ancestors who "stood on auction blocks and got up before sunrise and worked in the fields after sunset so you could be alive today." Young people, she said, "don't realize that they've already been paid for."
But what about this post-racial world ushered in with the election of President Barack Obama? "I don't even know what that means," she said. "Racism is going to be with us as long as ignorance has full sway, and ignorance has a starring role right now." Looking back, Angelou feels we made a "huge mistake" as the walls of segregation started to crumble and integration started to roll across the country. "A number of us threw the pickets away and said, 'It's all over now but the shouting.'"
Angelou has been in the news for her recent collaboration with hip-hop artist Common on his latest album -- and her reported disappointment with his use of the N-word and the B-word. (She said that journalists had "clogged up [her] phone" to tell her.)
So what would she do? "Well, I'll do nothing. It's been done." She recalled how the 15th-century philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli counseled that the sure way to control people was to divide them. "He wrote: separate them and you can conquer them," Angelou said. "Well, I won't be separated from Common or from any of the young men and women. I won't."
"I think a number of the leaders are, whether you like it or not, in the hip-hop generation," she said. "And when they understand enough, they'll do wonders. I count on them."