In honor of Dr. Maya Angelou’s 92nd birthday, she lit will analyze the master storyteller’s unforgettable appearance on the 1990s black girl TV sitcom Moesha.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis on April 4, 1928. Despite losing her voice after she was raped as a child, she eventually found her voice which led to an incredible career on the literary stage as she used her words to create brilliant memoir and poetry collections. While mute until she was twelve, she read voraciously and developed her talent from there. By the time she died in 2014 at the age of 86, she had received over 50 honorary degrees, the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
The film version of Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came out ten years later and was on repeat in my house along with 1984’s The Color Purple based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. When I became a teenager and realized I only knew Maya Angelou’s story via video, I started reading her memoirs including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; and Gather Together in My Name.
Twenty years ago, Maya Angelou played herself in a pivotal episode on Moesha, my favorite sitcom from childhood, and changed the course of the namesake character’s life. In the fifth season’s second episode, “Fired Up,” which aired Aug, 30, 1999 according to IMDb, Moesha—played by 90s braid queen multi-hyphenate Brandy—is looking for ways to redeem herself after accusing her boss at Vibe magazine of sexual harassment.
If you’re familiar with the sitcom that ran from 1996 to 2001 on UPN, then you know Moesha, a bright black girl coming of age in the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles, would tend to get in trouble often by thinking she was grown and later learning she was not.
Moesha’s professional misstep has not been forgiven completely as her colleagues still treat her as the lowly editorial assistant. Then a message without a name comes to her desk, so she calls the number. It turns out to be Maya Angelou’s publicist! But everyone else in the office had already gone home. Moesha, with her best friend Niecy—played by Shar Jackson—there to head out for a movie, decides to pose as a reporter and says she can interview Maya Angelou at the Vibe office. Here’s a transcript of their interview:
Maya Angelou: “I suppose Socrates said it the best, most succinctly. He said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.'”
Moesha: “Oh, that is deep.” [audience laughter]
Maya Angelou: “Deep enough to write down?” [audience laughter]
Moesha: “Next question: What is Oprah really like?”
Maya Angelou: “I think that question is best asked of Oprah herself.”
Moesha: “Of course, I’m so sorry. OK now when you first started writing how did you get people to recognize your talent so you can be published?”
Maya Angelou: “Other people’s recognition wasn’t my first focus. My focus was on the work. Recognition comes after that.”
Moesha: “But wouldn’t it be frustrating if you knew you had the talent and drive, but no matter how hard you try, nobody gave you the chance?”
Maya Angelou: “Well, you certainly are not talking about yourself. I mean, obviously you’re much appreciated here at Vibe. You have this important job and you just got out of college last night.” [audience laughter]
Moesha: “Well, actually I bypassed college, so I could plunge straight into the world of journalism.”
Maya Angelou: “You bypassed college?” [audience laughter] And let me ask you a question. Is this your office?” [She eyes her majestically crafted cane preparing to expose Moesha].
Moesha: “Unh, hunh. Why do you ask?” [A look of goofy bewilderment marks her face as if she couldn’t believe she got caught]. Maya Angelou then turns around a nameplate that reads Moesha’s male boss’ name toward the alleged reporter.
Moesha: [She accepts she just got caught] “You’re not gonna tell me to go to college? Are you? Because I’ve had this discussion with my parents.”
Maya Angelou: “My dear, elders all over the world do their best to gain some wisdom, so they can tell you young people something wise and wonderful to do which we know you’re not going to take to.” [audience laughter]
Moesha: “So you are gonna tell me to go to college?”
Maya Angelou: “I’m not going to tell you, but rather I’m going to pull something for your consideration. I’m suggesting more than any other place college can offer you a chance to know human thought over human centuries by then garner some preparation for your own life.”
Moesha: “Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Angelou. You have given me so much to think about.”
Maya Angelou: “I’m delighted.”
They embrace. Of course, Moesha gets fired.
After showing her boss her article on Maya Angelou, he tells Moesha she should’ve called him in order to ask the right questions. Now Vibe has to use its budget to send an experienced reporter to North Carolina to interview Maya Angelou in person. Moesha tries to explain how she seized an opportunity, but her boss tells her that’s 10% of the job and the other 90% is preparation. And from that question about Oprah and the other questions about her own situation, it was obvious Moesha hadn’t even done the research to interview Maya Angelou.
When Moesha gets home, she surprises her family by announcing she’s going to college. Little do they know, the one and only Maya Angelou was the catalyst for the decision with sharing the knowledge about the importance of college and becoming the subject of Moesha’s poorly executed article that led to her firing.
The episode ends perfectly with Maya Angelou and Moesha reciting “Still I Rise,” alternating lines in the darkened den within Moesha’s house. Then they recite together:
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise.Maya Angelou
After they speak the last line, they rise slightly off the sofa as if to show the power they received from their ancestors. “Still I Rise” is one of Maya Angelou’s most recognizable poems published in 1978’s And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems.
The Moesha guest appearance was a multi-generational milestone for black women on TV by having intellectual icon Maya Angelou reciting her poetry about rising above racial barriers with top black girl singer of the time Brandy. It showed Maya Angelou’s influence spanning over time, which she lit also reflected on in the 1993 film Poetic Justice starring pop legend Janet Jackson.