Maya Angelou delivers her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first presidential inauguration of President Bill Clinton. (William J. Clinton Presidential Library)

Good Morning? Good Morning.

What Maya Angelou can teach us about finding hope in 2021

I coped with 2020 in all the common ways — binging Love Is Blind, eating too much Halo Top, and Zooming with my camera off whenever possible. The most solace, though, was to be found in the year 1993 — specifically, in the poem Maya Angelou delivered at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration.

Almost every Sunday, I’d eat breakfast with Angelou. I grumbled “morning” to my dad; she gracefully nodded to President-elect Clinton. I took another bagel; she took the podium. Then, as soon as she looked up and out onto the crowd — onto me — she had my full attention.

Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” is one that bridges divides. Quite literally, standing at the dais that January day, she straddled two worlds: Behind her sat the politically powerful — rows filled with senators, Supreme Court Justices, governors, and the President-elect; before her, thousands of everyday people who harnessed their collective power — Americans who went door-to-door for Clinton’s campaign, ran voter registration booths, and cast their votes for “the economy, stupid.”

Despite divides in power and proximity, those attending President Clinton’s inauguration — on the podium, in the cheap seats, and at the breakfast table, nearly three decades later — all shared the same question: how can we make tomorrow a little brighter than the day before?

You might expect Angelou, the nation’s first Black and female inaugural poet, to offer the country reassurance, hope, or patriotism in the first few lines.

Instead, she begins with these six words: “A Rock. A River. A Tree.”

Angelou assumes the voices of those three objects for the rest of the poem. Speaking to a physically divided audience, united by their desire to do something, she paradoxically selects three messengers that lack the agency to act.

Three witnesses to history.

As Angelou inhabits the perspective of the Rock, the River, and the Tree, she describes the shameful acts they witnessed and the indignities they suffered at human hands. The River stood by as our trash littered its shore. The Tree watched the horrors of colonization, slavery, and racism. And the Rock saw humans choose ignorance, rather than take accountability for our actions.

All the while, the Rock, the River, and the Tree could not act, interfere, or stop us. The fate of the world was not in their control.

This past year, I’ve never felt closer to a stump or a stone — as if my life and my future were fundamentally out of my hands. Work trips to D.C. and study abroad plans slipped away like sand through my fingers. I watched my younger brother grapple with severe ADHD and depression and struggle through mundane hours of online schooling. Headlines about hospital workers running out of PPE monopolized my thoughts as my mom left the house each day for her job as a medical technician and my sister reported rising cases at the clinic where she works as an assistant. Friends and family members lost their jobs, worried over sick loved ones, and struggled to find stability. As my loved ones suffered, I felt powerless to help.

And as much as I isolated and vaccinated, during this pandemic, I was a witness to my fate. Every day, I was cruelly confronted by the limitations of my own actions; I felt a fear, frustration, and hopelessness that I could never seem to shake.

That’s why each week, I looked to Angelou to tell me how to find hope when my actions made little impact. Where to find meaning in being a mere observer.

Angelou delivers the answer forcefully, addressing the audience not as a rock or a river but in a voice wholly her own:

“History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.”

For Angelou, bearing witness is not the opposite of taking action; it is an essential component. She knew, perhaps better than anyone, the importance of acknowledging history… and then speaking out. After surviving rape at only eight years old, Angelou went mute for five years, keeping her trauma wrapped up silently inside. Angelou would go on to endure racism, poverty, and abuse, but she would never stay silent again. Over the course of her career as a singer, actor, dancer, poet, and novelist, she raised her voice on behalf of the marginalized, turning her personal pain into art and advocacy.

By invoking the Rock, the River, and the Tree, Angelou reminds us that witnesses have the power to keep our stories and our history alive. And through her own example, she shows us how reminding those in power of past wrongs can forge a path towards a brighter future. How the act of telling our stories is, in and of itself, a means towards lasting change.

Towards the end of her poem, Angelou calls us all to action:

“Lift your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.”

Angelou tells us that no matter who we are, we are blessed with a rare opportunity, every single day, to make an impact. There is so much purpose in bearing witness, so much power in having agency, so much hope in taking action.

And so, I do. I raise my voice on behalf of the people and causes that matter most to me — telling stories that make tomorrow brighter for my loved ones, even in the smallest of ways.

Like those gathered in Washington on that cold winter day in 1993, I don’t know what that tomorrow might bring. But I have to believe that Angelou hinted at it in her final words, a greeting, description, and hope for America all in one:

“Good morning.”

— Jessica Brouard(WWW Intern)

In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.

Watch Maya Angelou deliver “On The Pulse of Morning,” at President Clinton’s inauguration here.

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