The Great Depression; Interview with Maya Angelou. Part 2
CAMERA CREW MEMBER
Take two. Change camera roll seventy-four, change sound roll thirty-nine.
During the Depression, the troubadours were as peripatetic as were hobos, however they didn't catch freights because they carried their instruments and their instruments sometimes were wash tubs, and sticks in them, and cat gut. So they had wash tub bases. They could break them down, but they couldn't jump trains, they couldn't catch freights. They had cigar box guitars, literally, cigar boxes with the fret made of a piece of wood and cat gut strung. And the fellows from Texas, from the Brazos—black—sounded different from the fellows from Mississippi, from the Delta. So they'd come around the store on a Saturday and sing, and the Brazos guys sounded like this, [sings] \"Babe I want you to know I just don't want you around. sings jumbled sounds\" The guys in from the Delta sang like this, [sings] \"Babe, please don't go,\"—way back in their throats—[sings] \"Babe, please don't go.\" It was so beautiful, goodness, and I would stand in the doorway—I loved it—and my grandmother would say, \"Sister, come away from that. That's worldly music.\" [laughs]
Oh, that's wonderful, worldly music.
And it was worldly music in the best sense of the word.
Now, at that time, sort of on a heavier, on a sadder, crueler note, there was lynching going on at the time.
What was the kind of psychic affect on the, on the, on the folks in your community?
In the community, when—even before a lynching—when a black man had been accused of something which terribly offended the white community, the news went around the black community like a string of Chinese firecrackers being set off [imitates firecrackers popping]. I don't know how it got around so fast. And then a pall, a cloud of gloom and fear, would settle over the community like a heavy blanket being put over a light, like a little candle. And people—you could see it, you could sense it, but you could also see it the sag of the people's shoulders when they'd come into the store and just shake their heads. And I'm sure it is exactly the same universal sense of loss, and fear, and dread, and terror that obtained in Russia when the pogroms were rife in the shtetls, when people knew, \"Uh oh, here they come. The Cossacks are coming.\"
You describe in your book a night, a very specific night, now you remember there was a man—I think it was a white man—a Mr. Stewart or not quite, that somebody had messed with somebody in town and your Uncle Willie got so afraid.
Well, whenever, whenever the boys—as they were euphemistically called—the Klan would ride into the black area, all black men had to hide. And my brother and I would take potatoes and onions out of the bin—under, the bin was under the candy counter—and we'd take potatoes and onions out of the bin, and knock the partition out which separated them, and my uncle would take his stick, holding onto his stick, and laboriously get down into the bin. And my brother and I would cover him with potatoes and onions, and he would lie there all night until you, we couldn't hear the horse hooves, the horses' hooves or the truck, which would ride over and by its very presence be a threat.
When you, [coughs] when you went to school, what, how were the schools that you went to different from the white schools, the school that you went to, or even before that—when did you first discover that your schools were different from the white schools?
Well, I thought my school was grand. It was the Lafayette County Training School, so there. It was first grade through the twelfth, one building—no there was a second building, a home economics—Because I went downtown, occasionally, and downtown was an area with one block of paved road and one block of sidewalks, and I saw the white school, which was four times larger, and bricks, and all that, but I didn't, I don't remember envying that. I mean that was those, that was whitefolks, that had nothing to do with me. Until Mrs. Flowers, who is the woman who started me really to reading—I mean I had learned to read—but to enjoy it. When I stopped speaking this black lady took me in hand. She knew that I liked to read and she encouraged me to read every book in the black school, in the library, start with \"A.\" And after a few months she would come and ask me how far I'd gotten and I'd gotten to \"Br\" or something, and [coughs] I had a tablet which I kept in the belt of my clothes, and I would write how I'd liked or didn't like it. I didn't understand that much but I read every book. Well, she had some connection with the white school and from time to time she would bring books, and they were new. That was so unusual to me because we, we used the thrown away books, the books with the spines broken, or with no, with one cover gone. And I learned to repair books, because black kids did that. We would get cardboard, and with some, cover the cardboard with cloth, remnants that were around, and glue, make cooked glue with—I mean not just flour, but cooked flour—and water to make glue, put a little colloid in it, and put that on the back and the spine of the book, maybe even use wood. By the time the book was finished it looked lovely, you know, so we learned to do that and—but
I had never seen a new book until Mrs. Flowers brought books from the white school for me to read. The slick pages, I couldn't believe it, and that's when I think my first anger, real anger at the depressive and
oppressive system began.
I was angry at the way people treated my mama, my grandmother, who owned the land they lived on. I was angry at that, but that was a personal anger because of their maltreatment of Mama. But when I saw these, that the white kids had these fresh books, it was so unfair because I loved books, and I deserved them. And just because I was black, I couldn't have them. [coughs]
Do we have to cut?
CAMERA CREW MEMBER #2:
Yes we have to change camera rolls.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
Take three. Change camera roll seventy-five.
CAMERA CREW MEMBER #2:
Can we, actually between rolls we talked about this a little bit, but what affect, if any, did the economic problems of the Depression have on your community? What was the Depression like for you?
Well, there's a bitter and yet rye statement which was made by blacks about the Depression. They said in the South that \"the Depression had been going on for ten years before black people even knew about it,\" even knew it existed, and that was true particularly in the South, in villages, and small hamlets, and small towns because the people lived subsistence, at a subsistence level for the most part. Many were sharecroppers, and that line in the popular song of a couple of decades ago, it was absolutely true, they owed their lives to the company store. So because they hadn't been able to get education, then they were vulnerable to the greed and evil of the farm owners. So at the end of the year the farmer found himself not even even, not even even. He found himself in debt. So, the Depression had gone on long before the crash of '29 took place. I think that the, I imagine that the large hordes of, of men walking around the country had some affect on the black community, and this is interesting. One of the ways it affected the black community was that the white hobos would come to the black area to ask for food. Now, partly out of pride, and maybe the other part out of an ability to identify, to empathize with the hobo, black people always gave food. Now they had beans, maybe, with a little piece of, of smoked meat or dried meat, cured meat, they had cornbread, and black people would give beans and cornbread to black hobos and white. So at the railroad line they would all, they would come to the black area first.
Can you say, I feel like there's something else in that statement, \"the Depression was going on ten years before black people even knew about it.\"
Oh that, yes.
There's something else about that, about the, I guess the sense that things were always poor so—
So maybe white folks felt the difference?
Yes, this is true, I mean, because of the general subsistence level in the Southern states, non-industrialized areas, black people did not depend upon industry or upon Wall Street for anything. They depended upon the earth. They were farmers, and sharecropping farmers for the most part. So that they were not really affected in a large way, maybe subtly yes, but it wasn't until the end of the '30s, the beginning of the '40s, with the advent of World War II when black people left the South and went into the ship building and ammunition plants, that they began to in mass be able to be a part of the market.
Oh, I see. I'm going to take a stab at a really wildly general question.
You tell me if you want to, to go for this one. But is there a way that, you know we were talking about the young people, is there a way that, in some way, to give a sense that, that life for black people was very different then than it was now, I mean we're talking about fifty-sixty years ago, before the civil rights movement, before a lot of things have happened, is there some, again I'm dealing, I'm groping here with a gross generalization, but I'm wondering if you have any-?
There were, there were great differences in the quantity, and the quality of life in the black communities forty years ago. Great differences fifty years ago. The things one could hope to own were minimal compared to today's black community. I mean, even in poor areas a black community could count on, can today, count on there being certain things in the house. There will be a television in the house, there will be a, probably a VCR, and there will be certain, there will be a stove in the house, there will be a refrigerator in the house, there will even be a bathroom in the house, and a toilet in the house. People will actually have clothes. They may not be the newest clothes, they may not be the most expensive clothes, but people will have clothes. Now so here we are talking about things. When I grew up, and in the South at that time, a house was considered all right if it had a floor, and walls, and windows. Now that was all right. The floor would have no rugs, the floor would be washed once a week with lye water so that the wood came up white, and that was always a mark of pride for the housekeeper, that her floors were white, white wood because they were so clean. The toilet was outside, the bath was a big tub in which heated water was poured once a week. There were places one washed up during the week, but the real bath to sit down in water—and one didn't turn on the faucet or the tap—there was a well and one drew up the water. The qualitative differences in things, however there was in the black community a sense of community, a sense of pride, a sense of love. There was a communal sense of religion and morality. People simply didn't do certain things because it wasn't nice to do certain things. Children were loved and looked after. I don't know anybody who ever abused a child. I mean children got spanked, children got whipped, children got talked to pretty roughly, set over in the corner and so forth, but to abuse a child. This was, this is absolutely new in the black community. Never before until the last two or three decades had we heard of people actually burning children, and hurting them. Not that there wasn't sexual abuse, I don't mean that, I cannot say that, but even that was not as rife. Children were so valuable and everybody took pride in all the children. So any woman or any man were subject to call the child away and say, \"Child, who's your mama? Who's your papa? Come here. I don't like the way you're—\" I was grown. I came back from Europe. I was a dancer. I was the first dancer with Porgy and Bess, and I was a grand, young woman, and I had cut my hair off because my hair was very thick, and I couldn't dance and keep my hair in a certain kind of style. I went into San Francisco and a man saw me on the street. He said, \"Are you Clyde Ellen Vivian's daughter?\" I said, \"Yes sir.\" He gave me five dollars, he said, \"Go do something to your hair.\" [laughs] \"Find a beauty shop.\" Now that sense of interdependence and humor.
Let me ask you about one other thing though, what about-
CAMERA CREW MEMBER #2:
We're about to roll-out.
Again? Am I talking that much?
- The Great Depression
- Raw Footage
- Interview with Maya Angelou. Part 2
- Producing Organization
- Blackside, Inc.
- Contributing Organization
- Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
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- Filmed interview with Maya Angelou conducted for The Great Depression. Interview also appeared in I'll Make Me a World.
- Asset type
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Interviewee: Angelou, Maya
Interviewer: Stept, Stephen
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
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- Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with Maya Angelou. Part 2,” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 9, 2021, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-0g3gx45831.
- MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with Maya Angelou. Part 2.” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 9, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-0g3gx45831>.
- APA: The Great Depression; Interview with Maya Angelou. Part 2. Boston, MA: Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-0g3gx45831