Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the June 13, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
It was a crisp and brilliant morning when I first became acquainted with Maya Angelou. Oh, I don’t suggest I actually met Ms. Angelou. It was more like I was stirred to her powerful genius.
I’ll give away my political inclinations (love me or hate me) when I declare that I was thrilled to attend the presidential inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton on January 20, 1993. A life-long democrat since my early days in a Democratic household, I was first registered to vote in the early days of 1970s. Congress had passed the 26th Amendment in 1971 providing the right to vote to any American aged 18 or over and so, the 1972 election was just around the corner. I was a starry-eyed and idealistic young politico. In neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knocked on doors for Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern. Some of my best friends joined me and we felt that we could change the world.
Fast forward to the 1990s and I was, of course, a door knocker for yet another Democratic presidential hopeful, this time Bill Clinton. When Clinton was elected in the fall of 1992, I was fortunate enough to have some political connections (my ex-father-in-law was a colleague of Congressman Ed Markey). I scored Capitol Lawn tickets to the main event, the presidential inauguration of 1993. Three tickets – for myself and my two young daughters, age 10 and 11.
What a day it was! It was January frigid, yet still bright with promise for temperatures above freezing. At 9 am we were expected to line up to enter the South Lawn, West Front of the Capitol. A musical prelude strived to keep us engaged and the temperature climbed to a chilly but milder 40 degrees. I distinctly remember studying the back of heads, those who were taller than me. The lawn sloped up to the front of the Capitol and I alternately held my girls high in my arms so that they could see some of the activity not far from where we stood. Understandably, we spent much of our time entranced with watching the snipers high above on the Capitol dome; we stamped our feet in the chill, and snuggled up to the collective warmth of the thousands of people pressing against us.
Of course, the morning was a blur and the anticipation was over before we knew it. Bill Clinton formally took his oath at around noon and we craned our necks to see Hillary’s blue hat and William Rehnquist’s black robes.
One of those most memorable and unforgettable moments of that day was the hush of hundreds of thousands – perhaps a million – people as we sprawled across the Mall and up the Capitol lawns. Maya Angelou had stepped up to the microphone.
We listened raptly to “On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem that Ms. Angelou wrote and recited just for the occasion of this 47th presidential inauguration. She was only the second person to read a poem at a presidential inauguration (Robert Frost was the first in 1961). She was also the first black person and the first woman.
Maya Angelou was well-known among many well-read people, yet I had never read or heard her before.
In 1993, Maya Angelou had been an actor and was an accomplished speaker, writer, and teacher. She had written five of her seven autobiographical books before composing “On the Pulse of Morning.” She confesses that her inspiration for that famous poem came from everything that meant America to her – and to others. She included all of it in her poem.
Angelou’s dramatic skill was evident that day. Critics have either loved or hated the actual poem. Regardless, it was a dramatic and moving moment in history that I will never forget. In measured and dramatic prose, she called for peace, justice and harmony for Americans across our nation.
“If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.”
Maya Angelou was a child of eight when she was abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She recounted that story and of her five years as a mute in her first autobiographical work “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in 1961. She gave birth to her first child, a son, when she was only 17 years old.
Many people don’t know that Angelou was a professional dancer and that she toured with a professional opera company. She learned several languages and danced Calypso at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. Maya had been born Marguerite Annie Johnson in 1928, but she changed her name to Maya Angelou in the 1950s to further her stage career. She worked as a composer for singer Roberta Flack and had a supporting role in the television mini-series “Roots.”
While “Dr. Angelou” never earned a college degree, or a Ph.D., she was awarded over 50 honorary degrees. She taught at Wake-Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina until her death.
When Maya Angelou’s death was announced this past May 28, there was a common awareness of loss among many of us who had read her works or who had heard her speak. On Twitter, the grief was obvious; the White House mourned her as a storyteller; Oprah Winfrey mourned her as a blessing; Condoleeza Rice mourned her as a national treasure. J.K. Rowling spoke of her as simply amazing.
Most of us must mourn Maya Angelou as a patriot. She loved America fiercely – as a black woman, as a woman, and as a citizen. Maya Angelou believed in courage, she believed in change, and she believed in hope that we could all strive to be better human beings.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Poetry from “On the Pulse of Morning,” 1993.
For help finding or reserving any of the books by Maya Angelou, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” in the Minuteman Library catalog, be sure to call or visit the library, 781-769-0200