As a child, Maya Angelou believed that if you touched a white person your hand would go right through them. There would be no heart, no real insides. Things change, however, and today Miss Angelou may be one of the best hunters of the heart, one of the best to explore the insides of folks, black or white, and find what moves them, what makes them real and tangible to themselves and others. As one of the world's most widely read black female writers, she regularly explores such questions.
As a conversationalist, she lets them flow through her thoughts, freely and richly.
``There is that in the human breast which longs to go home,'' she tells her interviewer, historian Nell Painter, in And Still I Rise: Maya Angelou (PBS, Sunday, Feb. 3, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) . And for an hour that is just what they do: go home to the places where Maya Angelou has gathered her observations about people and life and mostly herself.
``I have a place within myself which is inviolate; no person has a right to intrude,'' she tells Painter, referring to it later as ``that place I go to talk to God.'' As an artist, she will ``always go to that private place to get the stuff to infuse the craft.''
Maya Angelou spent five years of her young life as a mute. She had been raped, and the rapist was killed when she named him. She thought that her voice had killed him. It would take five years before she would ever let that voice out again. During that time, she says, she became a human ear, listening, listening. And that, largely, is how she learned to write.
``I write for the American ear,'' she says.
And so she speaks. During this hour, she talks with Painter -- in what veers between interview and conversation -- about being black and successful, and just black, in America; about friendship, art, leadership, Africa, man-ness and woman-ness. All of it for the American ear and heart.
Small episodes of newsreel footage and film that historian Painter has brought along to spark the conversation are interspersed in the dialogue: Sidney Poitier receiving the Academy Award, the first black man to do so; Martin Luther King's ``I have a dream'' speech; the 1963 march on Washington.
``We reached a peak with that demonstration,'' she says, referring to the march on Washington. ``As a nation, we have fallen from that promise and so far from our potential, dangerously far, so far that we have become . . . what James Baldwin called ``these yet-to-be-United States.''
Not that she hasn't tried to unite them in uniting her many selves and talents:
Maya Angelou was, at Dr. King's request, the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1960 and 1961. She starred in the landmark Off Broadway production of Genet's ``The Blacks.'' She produced a 10-part PBS series on African traditions in American life. She began her professional life as lead dancer in the European touring company of ``Porgy and Bess,'' sponsored by the US State Department. Her four autobiographical novels -- ``I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'' (1970), ``Gather Together in My Name'' (1974), ``Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas'' (1976), and ``The Heart of a Woman'' (1981) -- have been so-called crossover phenomena, speaking in a large voice to black and white audiences alike.
``The potential in this country is so great that it makes me tremble and weep to see it go awry,'' she observes. ``Suppose we really were [one] people . . . black, hispanic, native Americans. . . . Sometimes, alone, I weep in my home for what we could be.'' The tragedy of a young person becoming cynical, she says, is that they are ``going from knowing nothing to believing nothing.''
``I know that in my work and my life I do encourage people to be bodacious enough to invent their lives every day. Every day. I mean, otherwise, somebody will invent it for you.''
Sitting on her sofa during this interview, Maya Angelou ``invents'' an engaging woman with a brilliant mind. She makes it out of that ``stuff'' she refers to when she observes why an inspired performance in dance, music, and writing moves you: ``The thing sings . . . because the person has put some of his stuff in it.''
And so does this program. It's good stuff. Straight from the heart.
``Even in its most barren stretches, there are animals.'' That's David Attenborough's summary observation about his pet subject, the earth. And for 12 weeks, he will make good on his observation. The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth (PBS, premi`eres Sunday, Feb. 3, 7-8 p.m., 11 Sundays thereafter, check local listings) encompasses Attenborough's journey, magnifying glass and binoculars in hand, from one pole to the other, and to nearly every region in between.
And, everywhere, animals. Small and furry, large and ferocious. All are grist for Attenborough's omnivorous curiosity about things and the way they work together, fit together, depend on each other for survival.
Judging from a screening of the first three episodes, and some reading of the book Attenborough has written on the journey, he seems to have come back with quite a full bag from his hunt. For my own tastes, there is a bit too much watching of one ugly insect eating another alive. Also, by the third episode, I confess to having succumbed now and then to the soporific effects of Mr. Attenborough's omnipresent voice.
But I watched these episodes all in a string, instead of one a week; and that could make a critical difference.
In the meantime, the sheer pleasure-principle attention to visual phenomena, from the Himalayas to the forests of Georgia and Florida, offers much to the armchair traveler. As does Attenborough's genius for finding the linchpins in nature that hold one seemingly unrelated life form in connection with another.
To his credit, Attenborough often lets the awe he feels in the face of the earth's mysteries overshadow the techno-scientific explanations of the planet's secrets.
Such secrets as the 11-foot long tube worms at the bottom of the sea that ``have neither mouth nor gut'' and other forms thrown off by the biological engines of the planet make for compelling watching. And listening.