This morning I woke up with one of Maya Angelou’s poems on my mind. She wrote it for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993. She could have written it for today. It’s nearly 6 minutes long, well worth every second. There’s a link below to a printed version of the entire poem.
Why this poem? Because of the last lines. They grabbed my gut when I first heard them. Her words took me back just two years earlier. We were deep into planned conversations at the seminary where I was then on the faculty. In addition to Rodney King being on our minds, we’d had our own share of distressing racially charged incidents. Feelings were running high.
We were placed into small groups and given a set of questions to guide conversation. We met several times in mixed groups, with student, staff and faculty involvement throughout.
I’ll never forget a black student’s comments to me. I’d asked for examples of times when black students felt ignored, unwelcome or uncomfortable. At that time the seminary had at least 35% black African-American students. His response stunned me.
He said that when he passed me in the hallways I never looked him in the eye or greeted him. It didn’t matter where I was going or what I was doing. It didn’t matter that I’d never had him in a class. He felt unwelcome and unacknowledged as a human being.
He wasn’t angry. He felt offended, and put on guard. Not looking him in the eye, not even saying ‘Good Morning’ or ‘How’s it going today?’ was, for him, a signal that he didn’t count in my world. Or worse, I thought he wasn’t worth getting to know.
Such a ‘simple’ thing. It was hard for me to hear, yet right on the money. I agreed to try this out for several days. Not just with him, but with other students as well.
The first few days were tough. I discovered I was especially reluctant to greet male students of any color. A sign of fear, especially around black men, and fear of sending mixed messages or worse. At the same time, it was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Here’s the very last stanza of Maya Angelou’s poem, “On the Pulse of Morning.” You can see why it caught my heart.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 August 2017
Video of live reading found on YouTube