What Maya Angelou’s Reading at Bill Clinton’s Inauguration in 1993 Meant to Her

The celebrated poet died Wednesday at the age of 86.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
May 28, 2014, 6:38 a.m.

On a sunny, Janu­ary day in 1993, Maya An­gelou stepped up to the po­di­um of the West Front of the Cap­it­ol, dir­ectly after Bill Clin­ton had been sworn in and de­livered his first ad­dress as the pres­id­ent of the United States.

She read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morn­ing,” and in it she honored the oc­ca­sion and en­cap­su­lated the en­tirety of Amer­ica’s his­tory — from the time of the di­no­saurs to the struggles of Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. The mes­sage of her poem was that the United States was a place where all these dis­par­ate ele­ments of his­tory can come to­geth­er.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4975) }}

Here on the pulse of this new day,

You may have the grace to look up and out

And in­to your sis­ter’s eyes, in­to

Your broth­er’s face, your coun­try

And say simply

Very simply

With hope

Good morn­ing.

“In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we hu­man be­ings are more alike than we are un­alike, and to use that state­ment to break down the walls we set between ourselves be­cause we are dif­fer­ent,” she told the Los Angeles Times about the poem at the time. “I sug­gest that we should her­ald the dif­fer­ences, be­cause the dif­fer­ences make us in­ter­est­ing, and also en­rich and make us stronger. The dif­fer­ences are minus­cule com­pared to the sim­il­ar­it­ies. That’s what I mean to say.”

The poem was hope­ful and op­tim­ist­ic that the coun­try could con­tin­ue to come to­geth­er, des­pite its his­tory. “His­tory,” she in­toned, “des­pite its wrench­ing pain, / Can­not be un­lived, and if faced / With cour­age, need not be lived again.”

Maya An­gelou died Wed­nes­day at the age of 86.

“There seems to be a prom­ise in the air,” she told The New York Times the month be­fore the in­aug­ur­a­tion. “I do think we have an­oth­er chance. Our na­tion has been giv­en so many chances to set it right, and in so many cases we’ve taken the low ground. With Mr. Clin­ton, we have a per­son of large vis­ion.”

An­gelou was a long-time Clin­ton fam­ily sup­port­er, who in 2008, told The Guard­i­an,  “I made up my mind 15 years ago that if [Hil­lary Clin­ton] ever ran for of­fice I’d be on her wag­on.” She wrote a poem prais­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton dur­ing her pres­id­en­tial cam­paign in 2008. Be­fore the 1993 in­aug­ur­a­tion An­gelou said, “Since the elec­tion, I have found it easi­er to wake up in the morn­ing.”

Pres­id­ent Clin­ton is­sued a state­ment after the news of her death Wed­nes­day. “I will al­ways be grate­ful for her elec­tri­fy­ing read­ing of ‘On the Pulse of Morn­ing’ at my first in­aug­ur­al, and even more for all the years of friend­ship that fol­lowed,” he said. “Now she sings the songs the Cre­at­or gave to her when the river ‘and the tree and the stone were one.’”

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