I was raised, like most Black children are, with an emphasis on respecting my elders. What was different about my family though was that often times, the most senior members of our family, were the ones acting up. They caused the most drama, exhibited the most dysfunction and seemed to have the most room for improvement. And I’m so grateful that I grew up in a family that wasn’t scared to speak about these shortcomings. They never stated this explicitly but I know my parents wanted to make sure that we didn’t repeat the pattern. So I knew what it was to have respect for my elders but also know that it wasn’t their seniority that made them morally or inherently right.
So this is the context with which I came to view the vintage clip of Dr. Maya Angelou chastising a twenty-year-old woman for addressing her simply as “Maya.”
Now, before you get it twisted, I was raised to address my elders as Mr. Miss. (Aunt or Cousin) in front of older family friends and relatives. It’s a tradition I understand and respect. Our elders have been through some shit. Much of it unimaginable in today’s time. And there is a history of Black folk having to honor White folks with titles while they were reduced to first names, even if they were older than the White people who were addressing them. It’s a tradition that far predates our lives as people who were enslaved and continuously oppressed in America. I’ll never forget watching Ghanaian model Hamamat Montia kneel and bow at her grandmother’s doorstep before the elder woman gave her permission to stand and enter her home. It seemed like a beautiful tradition. And for me, it reinforced the fact that for Black people, across the diaspora, our elders and ancestors are to be revered. We do this.
So I can understand a woman like Dr. Angelou correcting a fellow Black woman for what she interpreted not only as a sign of disrespect but also as a moment to educate her on a time-honored cultural tenant.
But the way she told her left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Thank you. First, I’m Ms. Angelou. Yes m’am. I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, has no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first.”
With all the love I have for Dr. Maya Angelou, I watched this clip and cringed. At 31, I’m closer to the 20-year-old woman than I am to the late Angelou, who was 62 at the time. We played it at work and discussed. And while some of my coworkers agreed with Angelou’s correction of the girl in this moment, I couldn’t appreciate it entirely. It comes down to the fact that there is a way to correct people without shaming them. And in this instance, I felt the first part of Angelou’s response to the woman was more shame than correction.
By the end of her remarks, she softens a little saying, “Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?”
As someone who’s seen Dr. Angelou speak at my university, I could just imagine myself standing up to speak to thee Dr. Maya Angelou. After having read her memoirs, her poetry, listened to her speeches, she, at least in your mind, becomes less of an elder and more of a friend. Even though I think no one would liken themselves as an equal to Dr. Angelou, rarely do our elders, even those within our families, share the type of wisdom and insight in the way that Angelou has through her life experiences. We feel like we know her. And being wrapped up in all of that, I could easily see anyone who has really connected with her work, forgetting, in that moment, that we don’t know her and she is a respected elder. And in the midst of being chosen to ask a question on national television "Maya" slipped out. Because in Kim's mind, Dr. Angelou had become the homie. And that’s a testament to the power of her work. It transcended generational barriers. It made us feel comfortable with her. Perhaps too comfortable.
After the clip went viral, the young woman in the video came forward.
Kim Watts, who is now 49-years-old, was a college student on a class trip in the video. She told The Associated Press that her friends let her know that the clip of her 1989 interaction with Dr. Angelou had gone viral.
She shared her reaction to Dr. Angelou’s correction at the time: “Her response threw me off. It was a little awkward for me, but at the same time it was like, ‘oh my God this is Maya Angelou.’ I remember feeling like, oh my gosh I insulted one of my icons, a person I look up to.”
What was particularly interesting about Watts’ story is that she was adopted by two White parents and said she wasn’t raised to speak to elders with a courtesy title. So in that regard, it was good that Dr. Angelou provided her with this lesson.
Kim Watts today at 49. Photo via Associated Press.
“I wasn’t thinking about that in the moment. I like that this conversation, though, is focused on respect. Given my age now, I can see both sides of it.”
As with many videos that appear on Twitter, we didn’t see the full interaction. Still, people saw the clip and went ham. While I didn’t see anyone write this, there were apparently people who said they would have tried to fight Angelou if she spoke to them like that. There were others who tried to cancel her posthumously.
It’s laughable. I wish y’all would try to swing on Dr. Angelou. She, even at 62, would have molly-wopped anyone in the room and then lived to write a poem about her victorious triumph. The idea of cancellation for this moment is absurd. Even if you found her response absolutely repugnant (which it wasn’t); if you weigh it against all the treasures Dr. Angelou has given this nation and Black folks specifically, there is no way canceling her should even be a consideration. Not that she would care on the other side of glory, anyway.
When the clip went viral on Twitter, what it didn’t show was Angelou’s response to Watts afterward. According to The Associated Press, she apologized to Watts for being short.
She says, “Let me say, to Kim, I apologize for being so short. I’m not usually so short. It just caught me off guard. I saw you, 14. I thought whew…but I apologize.”
She didn’t apologize for correcting her or telling her how she wanted to be addressed. She apologized for the shortness, the way she delivered the message. I felt vindicated by this. Not only because I was right in my analysis that it was a little too tart for that venue and in front of that audience. But also because it corroborated the general goodness and decency I’ve always sensed from Dr. Angelou.
Years ago, when I first moved to New York, my cousin was working with legendary choreographer and theater producer George Faison. He owns a theater in Harlem. One day, my cousin came home from work with a fascinating story. While she was there working, Dr. Angelou came in. My cousin, honored to even be in her presence kind of bowed to her. And Dr. Angelou's response to my cousin was something that stuck with me. “Don’t bow your head to anyone but God.”
If anyone is worthy of honor and respect, it’s Dr. Maya Angelou. But at the very end of the day, she was a human being. In the sight of God, she was no better or worse than the rest of us. What we love and admire most about her is that in the decades she spent teaching, writing, and sharing, she was able to acknowledge the fallibility of her humanity. And that interaction with Watts proved it. There, she was able to do something that most of our revered elders cannot: apologize to the younger generation when they’ve made a mistake.
You can watch Dr. Angelou’s interaction with Ms. Watts and her apology in the video below.