For decades, Maya Angelou, 84, has been an influential voice not only in poetry, literature and film but for civil rights as well. Now she’s taking on women’s health care. Plans for the June opening of the Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Angelou lives, were announced today. This will be the first center in the region to offer health care and wellness services specifically for women.
Coinciding with the opening is a Healthy Inspirations contest on the center’s Facebook page, where women are invited to write about how they have improved or changed their behavior to become healthier.
We spoke with the author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings about her involvement in the center and why she believes encouraging women to take charge of their own health care is so important. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: Let's start with the obvious: Why take up the cause of promoting women's health?
Maya Angelou: Well, I’m a woman. And I know that it’s smart to be on my own side. It’s pitiful, if not outright dumb, not to be an advocate for my own needs. Anything that has to do with improving a woman’s life, I support it. Anything that has to do with the improvement of African-American people’s lives, I support it. Anything which serves to improve the condition of any human being, I support it. Children, Asians, Native Americans, gay guys, fat girls, everybody. If I have an offer to do something good for somebody else, I hasten to do it.
More: What sorts of services will the center provide to women?
MA: The new center excites me because it means not only to focus on all the aspects of services, from cancer to cardiac illnesses to maternity . . . but also—and this is where they got me, where I became a member immediately—this center intends to offer women a chance to be their own advocates, to participate in their own search for their own health. And I think that that’s revolutionary.
Usually a woman’s health is left in the hands of others, sometimes men. And the truth is, human beings—not just women—we all know when we’re ill. The truth is, you know. You know if you’re nauseated after you eat, or if your head hurts inordinately . . . We may not know the name of the illness and we may not know the cure or the treatment, but we know when we're ill . . . And sometimes women go into the offices of doctors and nurses . . . and they say, “Well, actually, my right hip is hurting me and it hurts me quite a lot.” And sometimes the doctor will ignore what the woman says and ignore her chance to really be aware of her own condition, and might say, “Well, I think that sounds as if you have an ailment of your left elbow, and I think we‘re going to deal with that now.” Unfortunately, women have for so long had problems with self-esteem, that sometimes they give in and say, “OK, you may know what’s best.” So, this center means to allow women to participate, and that just excites me no end.
More: You also helped open the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem a few years back. Do you see similarities between the centers?
MA: Yes . . . There are similarities anytime playing fields are not even . . . The statement is made that blacks and beige and brown and yellow and red and poor whites, we’re all sort of linked together in a basic underserved community. And so that center is willing to bring fair health services to everybody.