Republican presidents of the US must be orators who can speak for themselves. One of them was even called upon to deliver the Gettysburg Address, a landmark in oratorical history. But their Democrat peers are rarely required to orate beyond the call of duty. They have writers and poets on their side. The luckiest of them, Bill Clinton, took office with Maya Angelou singing of a nation with a dark past of racism and war that stood on the threshold of real freedom — liberation from violence and majoritarian prejudice.
That inaugural reading in 1993 of Angelou’s poem “On the pulse of morning” was globally transmitted, but she had gained the ear of the world of poetry a decade earlier with “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”: “His wings are clipped and/ his feet are tied/ so he opens his throat to sing.” The caged bird could be anyone at all, for everyone is in a minority by some reckoning. That made Angelou’s poem an anthem endlessly repurposed by humankind.
Angelou was one of the greatest autobiographists of American letters, mining her own life for the poetry of liberation. Her best-known work drew upon her experiences as a black girl growing up in Arkansas, then a segregated state. But her work also celebrated the irrepressible confidence of a maturing nation: “Does my sexiness upset you?” she asked in “Still I Rise”. And finally, in the inaugural poem for Clinton, there was the implacable calm of certainty: “I am the Tree planted by the River,/ Which will not be moved./ I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree…” In her life of 86 years, Maya Angelou had reprised the history of the land of the free, and found liberation.