There Is Nothing Quite So Tragic as a Young Cynic, Because It Means the Person Has Gone From Knowing Nothing To Believing Nothing

Maya Angelou? Bill Moyers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent memoirist and poet Maya Angelou suffered in her early life, but she did not become bitter. She believed that young cynics were tragic figures. Would you please help me to find her comment on this topic?

Quote Investigator: This article mentions rape, murder, and trauma-induced muteness.

In 1988 journalist Bill Moyers produced a documentary about “Facing Evil”. Maya Angelou discussed events from her childhood. She experienced sexual abuse and responded by revealing the identity of her abuser who was jailed and later killed. These harrowing incidents caused her to become mute for almost five years.

While presenting her account within the documentary, Angelou employed the term “sordida” which means dirty, soiled, sordid. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness, you see, in the sordida, I was saved. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The website of Bill Moyers has a webpage titled “Facing Evil” with a date of March 28, 1988 which presents a transcript of the television broadcast including the remarks of Maya Angelou. 2

The 1988 book “Facing Evil: Light at the Core of Darkness” includes an edited transcript of Angelou’s remarks. The word “sordida” was omitted: 3

“This was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness. And out of this evil I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.”

The 1997 reference book “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” includes an entry for the quotation which cites the television broadcast. Oddly, the statement has been rephrased, and the adjective “tragic” has been changed to “pitiful”: 4

Maya Angelou poet
There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.
PBS 28 Mar 88

In 2011 the reference work “Book of African-American Quotations” included an entry for the quotation. The text matched that specified in the 1997 book above. 5

In conclusion, Maya Angelou deserves credit for the words she spoke in the 1988 documentary. A variant statement has also entered circulation. Conceivably, Angelou voiced the remark in different ways on different occasions. QI recommends employing the 1988 version.

Image Notes: Painting of the Greek philosopher Diogenes seated in an earthenware tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme circa 1860.

Notes:

  1. Website: TV Archive at Internet Archive, Television show: Moyers Company on PBS, Interview participant: Maya Angelou, Date on website: September 5, 2014 (Rebroadcast of 1988 documentary), Upload date: September 6, 2014, Website description: Television programs stored at Internet Archive. (Accessed archive.org on January 7, 2021) link
  2. Website: Bill Moyers, Article title: Facing Evil, Interview participants: Bill Moyers and Maya Angelou, Date on website: March 28, 1988, Website description: Blog of political commentator and television producer Bill Moyers. (Accessed billmoyers.com on January 7, 2021) link
  3. 1988, Facing Evil: Light at the Core of Darkness, Edited by Paul Woodruff and ‎Harry A. Wilmer, Part 1: Understanding Evil, Chapter 3: That Which Lives After Us by Maya Angelou, Quote Page 22, Open Court, LaSalle, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1997, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes from 1950, Revised Edition, Edited by James B. Simpson, Section: Humankind, Topic: Wisdom, Philosophy, and Other Musings, Person: Maya Angelou (poet), Quote Page 365, Column 1, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2011, Book of African-American Quotations, Edited by Joslyn Pine, Person: Maya Angelou, Quote Page 7, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York. (Verified with scans)