January 20, 1993, was a big day for the woman who was born in 1928 and named Marguerite Ann Johnson.
You probably don’t know her by that name, for she was introduced as Maya Angelou before reading one of her poems at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as POTUS on that January day 22 years ago today.
Angelou was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. Also, she was the first woman as well as the first African-American to do so.
The poem Angelou recited at President Clinton’s inauguration was titled “On the Pulse of Morning.” It ended with these words:
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
And into your brother’s face,
And say simply
Very simply /
With hope –
It was a very suitable poem for the new President from Hope, Arkansas.
Marguerite was born in St. Louis but mostly spent her early years, from age three to twelve, living with her grandmother in Stamps, Ark., a small town not far north of the Louisiana border.
Reading about the indignities she suffered as a little black girl in Arkansas helps us to understand Martin Luther King Jr’s passion for changing unjust laws, for he was just a year younger than Maya.
The town of Stamps is about 65 miles southwest of Bearden, Ark., where black theologian James Cone was reared. And even though he was born ten years after Maya, the violence against African-Americans in Arkansas, and elsewhere, led Cone to write his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” (2011).
In 1940, after Bailey, Maya’s brother, saw the body of a black man who had been lynched, “Momma,” their grandmother, decided to take the two children to their mother, who then lived in California.
Bailey, a year older than his sister, is the one who gave Marguerite her new first name. When they were small, he referred to her as “my-a sister” and then the nickname Maya stuck. Around 1953, after she became a night club performer in San Francisco, she took the name Angelou for her stage name.
Angelou’s most widely-read book is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969). It is her autobiography from the age of three, when she and Bailey were sent to Arkansas, until she was 17. I just finished reading it for the first time last night. It is a beautifully written book, and definitely one well worth reading.
Maya had a wide variety of experiences between the age of 17 and when she was 64 in January 1993. Among other things, by then she was a nationally known author and poet. And in 1991 she had become a professor at Wake Forest University.
Her memorial service was held at WFU’s Wait Chapel on June 7 last year, ten days after her passing at the age of 86.
It is amazing how people can rise from humble circumstances to great heights. That fact is clearly seen in the outstanding life Maya Angelou. It was also true for Bill Clinton, who was born just about 30 miles north of Stamps.
Amazing Maya Angelou left the world many good poems and other words worth considering well, such as these from her book “Celebrations” (2006):
Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.