Maya Angelou1




In 1993, when Bill Clinton decided to invite a poet to read at his first inauguration ceremony – for the first time since John F. Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961 – he chose fellow Arkansas native Maya Angelou to write a poem celebrating the new beginning of his first presidency. The panoramic piece that Angelou composed, “On the Pulse of Morning,” reached millions of television viewers. Its popularity proved so great that it was published as a cassette and chapbook in 1993(Anderson 4). The work was distributed to schools, libraries, cultural centers, and bookstores nationwide (Shiflet 8).
Appropriate for what Clinton promised would be a new era in American history, “On the Pulse of Morning” is a radiant piece that offers hope for the future by using good points of the past (Bloom 34). Angelou writes the poem using three objects of nature, “A Rock, A River, A Tree (Angelou 1), from which point she searches the distant past to provide answers for the present as well as advice for America’s future. Drawing different races, cultures, and religions together, the poem invites all of humankind to return to the foundations that made the country great, including basic values and an appreciation of nature (Bloom 40). Angelou calls upon ancient voices in hopes that “Each new hour holds new chances/for a new beginning (Angelou 5).” Maya Angelou’s works, specifically this poem, is complex in its themes, style, historical context, and its critical overview.
The first theme in this poem is knowledge and ignorance. Written in the personae of nature as a teacher, “On the Pulse of Morning” offers a clear message of how America should prepare for the future. Beginning as early as the second stanza, the Rock offers an invitation to stand upon its back to face a distant destiny (Anderson 16). This intensified outlook offers a clear vision of what is on the horizon, a theme that repeats throughout the poem in lines such as “lift your faces,” “lift up your eyes”, “look up and out upon me” and “look up and out/And into your sister’s eyes (Angelou 5)”. The metaphor of lifting one’s eyes to the light is deeply rooted in religious and philosophical literature (Anderson 18). One of the most famous pieces is Greek philosopher Plato’s theory that describes man as a being living in a cave, isolated and trapped in his ignorance (Cudjoe 21). The only knowledge that reaches him is the coin of light from a distant entrance, hardly enough to illuminate any writings on the cave walls (Cudjoe 22). For man to become truly “enlightened,” Plato suggests, he must move toward light and out into the brighter world of knowledge (Cudjoe 24). Angelou suggests a similar metaphor when the Rock warns “but seek no haven in my shadow, /I will give you no hiding place down there (Angelou 1)”. In some cases “ignorance is bliss (Angelou 3),” a haven where it is easier to ignore actions than take the responsibility and burden that comes with knowledge. And the speaker makes the ignorance clear: America’s near past plays host to such issues as racism, genocide, world war, slavery, environmental destruction, and prejudice (Anderson 22). Americans have “Crouched too long in/the bruising darkness/…Facedown in ignorance (Angelou 1). The key to “a bright new morning,” Angelou proclaims, is to step out of our dark past and lift our faces, hearts, and eyes toward the light (Anderson 23).
Another common theme in many of Angelou’s poems, prose, plays, and television documentaries is the value of pride even in the most desperate of situations. According to Angelou, a sense of pride is what sustains people when they are enslaved, harassed, humiliated, and degraded (Anderson 25). “Rather than show personal defeat in the face of depression”, Angelou states, “people should lift their faces and walk proud, for someday they will be rewarded for their hardships” (Anderson 26). Angelou’s ancestors (as well as many other
Americans’) were those who were “sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare/Praying for a dream (Angelou 4). Growing up in a segregated, racist South where whole white communities once gathered outside elementary schools to scream racial slurs at black children, Angelou learned the value of personal strength in seemingly hopeless times