The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
Civil rights activist, poet, playwright, director, actor, professor and writer Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is perhaps best known for her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), a classic of African American literature that continues to be assigned in high school and college classes. In the bright light of the recent appearance of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman as the inaugural poet—wearing the yellow and red colors of a sunrise, and giving a dynamic performance of her inspirational poem, “The Hill We Climb”—for the inauguration of President Joe Biden (and oath of office of our nation’s first woman vice president, Kamala Harris) on January 20, 2021, we also pay tribute and remembrance to Angelou for her riveting recital of “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration on January 20, 1993.
While Amanda Gorman has just conveyed a new breath of youth and hope and responsibility for the country in 2021, Angelou represents an earlier generation of change and African American and women’s activism. Her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings chronicles her familial history and her formation of self and identity in her youth, as she surmounted personal and economic challenges and forged a series of ways to use her talent and make a living. In the 1950s and 1960s, Angelou discovered her voice and developed skills as a dancer, singer, actor, and writer as well as activist. She performed in nightclubs and in a 1950s production of the Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess (the developmental history of Porgy and Bess as a novel, play, and folk opera is chronicled in the Manuscript Division’s Rouben Mamoulian Papers). Her recording of calypso music came out from Liberty Records in 1956.
Angelou developed a new “family” of support with other writers, activists, and performers in the 1960s. These included, through the Harlem Writers Guild, novelist Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959); and through her performance in Jean Genet’s play, The Blacks, a who’s who of outstanding African American figures in music and theater, including James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Abbey Lincoln and Cicely Tyson. She joined the Civil Rights efforts in a northern wing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (an organization that is documented in the Manuscript Division’s Rosa Parks Papers and Bayard Rustin Papers, and other collections). She became active in the Organization of Afro-American Unity after meeting Malcolm X when she was living and working as a freelance writer and reporter in Ghana. Her friend James Baldwin, whom she had met in Paris, and New York political cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer (whose papers reside in the Manuscript Division) encouraged her in her writing career, resulting in her breakthrough publication of the revelatory I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, which became a best seller. Soon she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971).
In 1993, Angelou received an invitation to recite what became “On the Pulse of Morning” at the Clinton inaugural ceremony (“A Rock, A River, A Tree” were among its symbols). The invitation made her the second poet after Robert Frost’s appearance in the 1961 inauguration of John F. Kennedy to be part of a presidential inaugural ceremony. Drafts of some of Frost’s poems are held in the Manuscript Division, along with inaugural poem draft materials donated to the Library of Congress by former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who had championed the choice of Frost as inaugural poet to Kennedy. While Frost and his recited poem “The Gift Outright” reflected Kennedy’s New England roots and ideas of new frontiers and manifest destiny, Angelou reflected fellow Southern roots and African American voting support for Bill Clinton, his affinity for jazz and blues, and his desire to project through her poem and through his own inaugural address values of unification, inclusivity, and opportunity.
Angelou received a Best Spoken Word Grammy Award for her recording of “On the Pulse of Morning,” and the published version of the poem is included in the Library’s book collection. Angelou’s expressive delivery at the inaugural ceremony has been praised, like the earlier powerful sermon-like speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., for its place in a great African American oratorical tradition, as well as the highly developed oral tradition of African American storytelling.
Angelou’s inaugural poem was followed in June 1995 by her “A Brave and Startling Truth,” which she wrote to honor international diplomacy and peace in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. A typed version of the poem, with handwritten emendations, signed by Angelou, is part of Manuscript Division collections. She was awarded the Spingarn Medal for African American achievement by the NAACP in 1994. As a capstone of her long and remarkable career, and in yet another association with an American president, Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom as the highest civilian honor from President Barack Obama in 2010. We remember the spirit of self-realization expressed in another famous Angelou poem “Still I Rise”: “Just like moons and like suns” and the inevitability of tides, just like hopes that spring up, “Still I’ll rise.”