Upon his election in 1992, Bill Clinton – affectionately referred to as the nation's first black president – asked Maya Angelou to compose a poem and read it at his inauguration. Angelou feels a new poem welling up inside her following Barack Obama's election, but she does not expect another command performance.
“I'm sure Mr. Obama, president-elect, will have them bring his own poet,” the 80-year-old writer said Friday from her home in Winston-Salem, where she holds a professorship at Wake Forest University. “I was somebody else's poet.”
Angelou raised some eyebrows when she decided to support Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary over a fellow African American. But when Clinton withdrew, the writer threw her support behind Obama, “thumping the drum” on his behalf and introducing his wife, Michelle, at an event in Greensboro in September.
The poet and author of such books as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” said she had a visceral, physical reaction when Obama was declared the winner late Tuesday.
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“First I laughed,” she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “Before I could finish laughing, I wept. Then I shook. I mean, I trembled. You know, the old meaning of the word ‘thrill' has a physical aspect. It's like, ‘Brrrrr!' My body started shaking.”
But the experience was also cerebral. Images of slavery and the civil rights movement and of her slain friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raced through her mind, and in that moment, she realized that the United States was finally “growing up.”
“I thought of my people, African Americans. I thought of white Americans. I thought of Asians and Spanish people. And I thought, ‘My God! What a country. What a country.' I believe that in the secret heart of every American there's a desire to live in a great country. And look at us now.”
“On the Pulse of Morning,” the poem she composed for Clinton, talked of war and divisiveness, but also of hope for a new beginning of peace.
Angelou said Obama is “a clear and clean wind, a breeze. … There is some poetry in him, yes.”
She has not been approached by Obama about the inauguration; nor does she expect to be. She plans to write a poem about the election of the nation's true first black president in the coming months, but she cannot yet say what form it will take. She only knows that, like this milestone, it will not come easy.
“I will approach it as the work it is,” she said. “Try to put all my energies and my talents and my prayers and hopes and all that, my nervousness – all of those things will go into it.”