Personal Heroes of Black History Month: Inauguration Poets Maya Angelou and Amanda Gorman
February was Black History Month in the United States and March is Women’s History Month worldwide. To honour and celebrate Black American women I know or admire, I am sharing a series called Personal Heroes of American Black History. Please join me in this celebration.
January 20, 1993
Twenty-eight years ago, I was home sick from school and watching television. The television I selected was the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America.
The ceremony felt long to my 13 year old self and I remember my attention starting to drift until a striking Black woman took the podium and captivated me with her words. This woman was Maya Angelou and the words were her poem, ‘On the Pulse of the Morning.’ I was absolutely transfixed and can still hear her beautiful, deep, lyrical voice reading words written specifically for that time.
What I didn’t know was that Maya Angelou was the second poet to ever read at an inauguration, the first being Robert Frost at JFK’s ceremony — but to me, a young girl, poetry always belonged at such an event because of Ms. Angelou’s presence.
January 20, 2021
Nearly 30 years later, I am at home in London with my British-Jewish husband, Anglo-American toddler, and his Swedish au pair. We are globalisation personified. It is our son’s dinner time and so we granted special dispensation for him to watch the ceremony live while eating his supper.
I wept tears of gratitude and sadness through the ceremony, relief and shame at the past four years oozing out of me. Then Amanda Gorman stepped up to the podium and recited the poem she wrote for the inauguration. A poet friend of mine said it best: it was almost like Ms Gorman reinvented language itself, her words were so fresh.
Alongside the words spoken were the non-verbal messages telegraphed out for those who could see them. Ms Gorman’s jewellery were gifts from Oprah, who also gifted Ms Angelou the pieces she wore at the same podium 28 years earlier.
And what a gift to us, these two women. Poetry will always belong.