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Maya Angelou: In disaster, humanity shines

  • Maya Angelou says something good arises from catastrophe as humans forget their biases
  • For a while, she says, neighbors help neighbors and strangers help strangers
  • We must not allow bad circumstance to reduce our humanity, she warns
  • Ms. Angelou: News from Joplin is filled with stories of heroism that are thrilling to hear

Editor's note: Maya Angelou is a poet and novelist who studied with Martha Graham, danced with Alvin Ailey, won three Grammys, directed, wrote and acted in films; worked for civil rights after a request from the Rev. Martin Luther King; was friends with James Baldwin and met Malcolm X. She served as America's poet laureate. But she is most celebrated for her poetry and her autobiographical works, the first of which was "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

(CNN) -- Celebrated poet and author Maya Angelou, who was born in Missouri, has been watching images from her home in North Carolina of Joplin, Missouri, staggering from the recent tornado's deadly blow.

Angelou believes catastrophes such as the one in Missouri reveal our common humanity -- we are united in concern and empathy and perform extraordinary deeds.

At least 125 people died in Joplin when the tornado hit Sunday, the deadliest such event in the U.S. in the 61 years since modern record-keeping began.

Angelou shared her thoughts with CNN.

CNN: What do you think of what's happening in Joplin?

Maya Angelou: The situation in Joplin is terrible. It's awful. People in my church are gathering supplies and monies for the victims, and of course, for the people in other states who have suffered, states like Mississippi, where they were flooded.

I think about the little villages, the hometowns, the farmhouses, people who really live in the sticks, on land absolutely covered with water. I feel for them so.

CNN: What strikes you most about the situation on the ground in Joplin?

Maya Angelou: That there's something good that comes out of a bad thing. It's good to remember that in crises, natural crises, human beings forget for awhile their ignorances, their biases, their prejudices. For a little while, neighbors help neighbors and strangers help strangers. It's amazing that it takes something like that to bring out the best of us.

The news of Joplin is filled with stories of heroic deeds. They are heroic because people are not obliged to be helpful. Many have stepped into harm's way to help someone else, to help a stranger. It thrills me in the classic sense of the word. It gives me shivers, it gives me goosebumps.

CNN: Have you seen this same spirit elsewhere?

Maya Angelou: It was true in Katrina, true in Chile's mining disaster, in Haiti. People rallied to help. Americans have gone down there, to New Orleans, to Haiti, leaving their cozy nests to see what they could do. They showed their humanity.

During bad circumstances, which is the human inheritance, you must decide not to be reduced. You have your humanity, and you must not allow anything to reduce that. We are obliged to know we are global citizens. Disasters remind us we are world citizens, whether we like it or not.

How to help the victims

CNN: Do you feel connected to the people in Missouri?

Maya Angelou: I was born in St. Louis but lived there just for a few minutes in my life. But I'm an American, so I'm also a Missourian ... and a Texan, an Iowan, a Mississippian, a New Yorker ...

Growing up, I decided, a long time ago, I wouldn't accept any manmade differences between human beings, differences made at somebody else's insistence or someone else's whim or convenience. Or boundaries of a state. (That is why I say proudly and without apology that I am a Jew and a Muslim.) I'm not separate from any human beings by any artificial difference. Only their actions can separate me from other people.

CNN: Does it seem to you that we're hearing about disasters more than ever?

Maya Angelou: Some of that perception comes from communications. We have televisions, iPads, the web; we can see what is happening in these disasters. Before, we could read about it and see some still photos, but today's technology allows us to see these catastrophes happen in our living rooms.

CNN: So, do you have an iPad?

Maya Angelou: Yes, Oprah gave me an iPad. It's fun! I've written some emails on it, and people are surprised and asking me if I really wrote them. I've written 31 books in long hand, so they can't believe it.

Part of complete coverage on
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Click through to see the number of tornadoes by year since 1950 and how many deaths resulted from these twisters.
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