The late, great Maya Angelou had a long and varied life. In addition to being a singular poet, memoirist, and beloved public figure, she was a bus driver and an exotic dancer, plus her story includes a poignant tennis connection. In 2006, the great author—who died last month at the age of 86—received an award from the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, and in the famous “My Dear Camera” chapter of Ashe’s book Days of Grace, Ashe draws upon the imagery of “On the Pulse of Morning,” Angelou’s poem for President Clinton’s inauguration, while reaching out to his young daughter in the very last days of his life. Here is a passage from the book:
Coincidentally, Camera, I am writing this letter to you on the same day as the inauguration in Washington, D.C.—January 20, 1993—just a few hours after William Jefferson Clinton became the new president of the United States of America. I have been watching much of the pomp and pageantry on the television in my study. I especially loved listening to Maya Angelou, tall and dignified and with a rich, melodious voice, read the poem that our new president asked her to write especially for this occasion.
Tears came to my eyes as I watched her conjure up symbols and allusions generations old in the African American world as she sought to describe the nature of life and to challenge humanity to do better. She spoke of “a rock, a river, a tree” as sites in and of the earth that over time have witnessed the sweep of recorded and unrecorded history. For me, the river and the tree hold special significance as symbols because they are so much a part of African American folklore and history, our religion and culture in the South, where I was born and grew up, and where so many other black folk have lived in slavery and freedom.
When I was a boy not much older than you, one of the most haunting spirituals I heard on many a Sunday morning in church spoke movingly of a “rest beyond the river.” These words and music meant that no matter how harsh and unrelenting life on earth may have been for us as slaves or in what passed for our freedom, once we have crossed the river—that is, death—we will find on the other side God’s promise of eternal peace. The river is death and yet it is also life. Rivers flow forever and are ever-changing. At no two moments in time is a river the same. The water in the river is always changing. Life is like that, Maya Angelou wisely reminded us today at the inauguration.
What is sure to be different for you will be the quickening pace of change as you grow older. Believe me, most people resist change, even when it promises to be for the better. But change will come, and if you acknowledge this simple but indisputable fact of life, and understand that you must adjust to all change, then you will have a head start, I want you to use that advantage, to become a leader among people, and never to lag behind and follow the selfish wishes and snares of others.
On the other hand, Camera, certain things do not change. They are immutable. Maya Angelou’s tree stands for family, both immediate and extended. She had in mind, I imagine, some towering, leafy oak, with massive and deep roots that allow the tree to bend in the fiercest wind and yet survive. The keys to the survival of this big tree are the strength and depth of these roots, and especially of the taproot far down in the earth, sprung from the original seedling that long ago gave life to the tree. When you see a magnificent tree anywhere, you know it has had to fight and sway and bend in order to survive. Families that survive are like that groups of people, such as those of an ethnic group, are also like that.