Maya Angelou lived a long and kaleidoscopic life, and yet there’s one moment on which almost every eulogy seems to linger. This is the way we’ll remember her: in gold and black, on stage in a sea of statesmen, regal. So what was it about Angelou in 1993, in Washington, at the inaugural? What was it about the moment when she turned to America and said, at the end of the poem for Bill Clinton, “good morning”?
For some, the answer is simple. Watching Angelou that day, author and Spelman College professor Tananarive Due has told CNN, “I felt like I belonged in my own nation — at last.”
But Due’s account is part of a longer historical story. Look back at 1969: at I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the autobiography that made Angelou’s name a household word. Published a quarter-century before she stood up at Clinton’s inauguration, that text now functions as a kind of time capsule, a record of the distance that Angelou was marking all those years later.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a vibrant, funny, joyful book, but it isn’t a book with a lot of hope for politics and government. In fact, it isn’t really interested in government at all. In its Arkansas and Missouri and California towns there are revival meetings and a store and funeral homes and summer fish fries and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and there’s even a brief trial. But there is pretty much no judiciary, and there’s no Senate and no House and certainly no president of the United States.
Maya Angelou helped pave the way to the present. And she helped remind us — “with hope” — that the civil rights era was, and must be, ongoing.
Caged Bird arrived at the end of the civil rights era, when many of the great works of literary art published in the United States (think Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Sam Greenlee) had represented those mechanisms of government, either directly or allegorically. These works had been not only literature but also meditations on the question of how the state might better serve black America.
But by 1969, that era was over, and literature had largely turned away from this question. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was part of that turn. It was a book for the post-civil-rights era, an era when many black Americans had come to feel that government had been tapped and that trying to make it serve the purposes of racial justice was futile — and therefore no longer an artistic or political priority.
So I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings puts its energy elsewhere.
But “On the Pulse of Morning” is different. It’s different because Angelou wrote it to take to the capital, but it’s also different because of the time that had passed between 1969 and 1993. “On the Pulse of Morning” is a poem about nationhood. It’s also ultimately also a poem about what kind of government, what kind of “tree,” might have roots that could bind together a variegated national soil. It’s a poem that tries to imagine a state apparatus that could belong to and work on behalf of Muslims and Sioux and African Americans alike.
“The horizon leans forward,” Angelou told her fellow citizens — herself not leaning but entirely erect — “offering you space to place new steps of change.” History had been a land of “wrenching pain,” and it could not and should not be unlived, and yet all Americans should look out on the landscape of the present and think of what they saw as “your country.”
Your country. It wasn’t just a place, real or imagined: It was a machinery, an administration, a state. Angelou’s presence on that Washington stage symbolized and enacted the slow but unmistakable renovation of the relationship between black America and American government.
Once she’d pronounced that final line — “say simply, very simply, with hope, good morning” — she picked up her manuscript, revealing red cuffs beneath her black and gold coat, and she turned to Clinton and embraced him. She made Bill Clinton look small. He is 6’2”, but she was 6 feet tall, and that day she wore low red heels.
In more ways than one, she’d helped inaugurate a new regime. After the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, Clinton’s appointment of black Americans to his Cabinet, his formal and substantive apology for the Tuskegee syphilis study, aspects of his public style and his symbolic political acts — among them inviting Angelou onto the inaugural stage — would help a critical mass of black Americans to begin again to see government as a tool for political change.
But the transformation that Angelou was helping to bring about, on that morning in 1993, would continue beyond the Clinton years. In 2008, her words — “change,” “hope” — became the words that ushered Barack Obama into office.
And by 2010, the number of African Americans who told the Pew Research Center that they trusted the U.S. government was nearly twice the number of whites who said so. That was a dramatic reversal from previous years, when black Americans had always said that they trusted government much less than did whites.
It’s easy to attribute those statistics to optimism associated with the election of President Obama. But 1993 is an essential part of the story.
Maya Angelou helped paved the way to the present. And she helped remind us — “with hope” — that the civil rights era was, and must be, ongoing.