I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings author, famed poet and civil rights activist wants women to make their health a priority.
When legendary poet and writer Maya Angelou, 84, was approached by Forsyth Medical Center (FMC) about naming their health center after her, she was ecstatic — she wanted to be part of the region's first ever comprehensive health health care and wellness center specifically designed to meet the unique needs of women of all ages.
The Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness, which opens the week of June 1 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, will provide a range of services including mental health, prenatal care, HIV and STD testing, emergency care, bone and joint treatment and heart disease and diabetes care.
Angelou talked with BET.com about the health center, why health disparities among women is an issue close to her heart, and why in order for us to truly be a "phenomenal woman" we need to make our health a top priority.
BET.COM: Why is providing better access to quality health care for women an important issue to you?
Maya Angelou: I am always concerned because I am one to be on my own side, to be a supporter of myself. The issues of fair play for women among health [care and research] is very uneven. We know that money, support and care for men's health issues are 10 times that of women. And so it's important for me [to be an] advocate for women's issues. I know that in some people may think that’s being selfish. But the truth is that’s being self-full.
If I look after myself and am able to either prevent ailments or bring them to a ready health, then [as a woman] I'm in better shape to look after the children and the elders and anybody else who needs looking after. But if I don’t look after myself I won’t be around to even help anybody else look after herself or himself.
What are some of the most exciting services that the center is going to provide?
I think all of them are exciting, of course. But, I am really happy about the work around heart disease, which is such a huge killer among women. Of course, the HIV/AIDS work, too, which is what I am more excited about, especially since this work is about how women can help themselves and be present in their own health. More women need to be strong enough to say, "If we are not using condoms, then I don’t want to have sex." Because it's her life she's talking about, her life that she is saving. I know it’s not popular [for me to say that], but dying is much less popular.
But what's really important is that at the center, women can come in and be spoken to like they are grown-ups and talked to like women. Sometimes women allow ourselves to be talked to as if we’re little children. That’s ridiculous.
That's so crucial because the doctor-patient relationship is so important. For a range of reasons, so many women feel completely disempowered to speak up in the doctor's office. It's happened to me a few times.
I know. But when you see that the doctors are basically telling you, "You must listen to what I say and do not ask me any questions," then you have to look at them and ask, "What are you doing for my health? How are you helping me? Do I really matter to you?"
Can you tell us about your “Healthy Inspirations” contest on the Maya Angelou Center for Women’s Health and Wellness Facebook page? [The winner of the Healthy Inspirations contest will be featured inside the center, and runners-up will receive an autographed copy of Angelou’s book, Phenomenal Woman.]
I’d like to see letters from women. I’d like to see attempts at poetry and poetry. I’d like to see women talk about how they are willing to be present in their own lives and how they think that they’re worthy of being present and saving their own lives. Maybe in the future, we'll do an anthology of the poems or letters [that] come in. We’ll see.
What would you say to all the young people out there, who feel that they don’t need to worry about their health now, because they feel that's something to be worried about when they are 40 or 50?
If you don’t know that your health is important now, I don’t know when you will know. I don’t know who can make you stop and look at yourself and realize this is your life. It’s not your brother’s, your mother’s, your father’s, your children's and it’s not your husband’s. This is your life.
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(Photo: Ken Charnock/Getty Images)