How to Develop Courage

During an interview with writer and activist Maya Angelou, Oprah recalled a party at Angelou’s house that she had attended. This story is an inspiring example of her courage:

Oprah: I remember once being in your house and somebody was telling a joke. And you were on the other side of the house… we were at a party, it was very noisy. And the person made a joke and it was a racist, homophobic joke… and you stopped the party.

Maya Angelou: Mmm hmmm

Oprah: First of all, I couldn’t believe, I was like how could she hear that from all the way over there. But you stopped the party and asked the persons to excuse themselves and leave your house.

Maya: Yes. Yes. Exactly. I said is this your coat? Did you come with anyone? Both of you come this way.” Oh yeah, no no no!

Oprah: I know!!! And every one else was like whoa what just happened”. And then you said to all of us, I would not allow it in my house.”

Maya: That’s right, it’s vulgarity and it’s poison. And this is what a person must know. I know there are black people who say, Oh, you can use the N-word to me because I’m black.” NO! It is poison. All of that. Any racial perjorative, any sexual perjorative, any of that stuff is created to make a person less than human. And that means it’s poison. Nobody can use it safely. I mean if poison is poison that you get from a pharmacy… you can’t take that content and pour it into bavarian crystal and make it otherwise… it’s still poison. You don’t want… it clings to the walls, gets into the upholstery, in your clothes and sooner or later, right into you.

Oprah: So this is what I wanna know… where did you get the courage to not allow it in your space. Because many of you are watching right now, people say things that make you uncomfortable.. they start a joke that you know is leading down a racial path, down a homophobic path or whatever. And people just sort of laugh nervously at it because they don’t know how to stop it. How do you stop it?

Maya: You don’t stop it by doing it immediately. You develop courage. Courage, Oprah, is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be anything erratically now and then — kind, fair, true, generous, just, blah blah. But to do that thing time after time… So what you do is you do it in small ways. I mean if you wanted to pick up a 100 pounds weight, you don’t just go do it. You start picking 5 pounds and 10 pounds and 20 pounds. Well that’s the same way you do with courage. You do the courageous thing, a small one, and you like yourself. And then you do another two, three, and you like yourself better. And before you know it, you are able to say, Excuse me, not in my house you don’t. You don’t paint my walls with poison and vulgarity. You will not do it in my house. Out. Is this your purse? Thank you. Bye”

Sometimes in a conversation with a group of friends, somebody says a racial, homophobic, or sexist remark. I’ll notice it, I’ll find it distasteful, but I usually won’t say anything. As a writer, I understand the power of words, and frankly, I don’t call them out because I don’t have the courage.

Not many people are born with this level of courage. But courage can be exercised. As Angelou suggests, start small then do it more and more.

June 20, 2023

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