I watched a presidential inauguration for the first time in 1993. I had previously seen Bill Clinton on the Arsenio Hall Show. My older brother and I had watched him. Maybe for his inauguration, he’d play the saxophone again. I didn’t know what to expect.
Now, thanks to Maya Angelou, I’m always interested in presidential inaugurations, partially to see and hear the selected poet. I remember sitting Indian-style on the floor watching a grandmotherly woman with a gospel-deep-south voice standing at the podium reading her poem. Until that moment, I had only read poets in a book or recited poems in church. I was a high school freshman, and there wasn’t a poetry program at my school. There was no Def Poetry Jam or YouTube clips. It was my first tangible image of a poet. It was my first shared poetry experience— the ultimate open mic reading.
Courtesy of William Jefferson Clinton Library
And when she ended the poem, with “Good Morning”, it felt as if all that stuff she had said that I didn’t understand made sense. Something as simple as “good morning” seemed so powerful from her mouth—she made it a necessary greeting of all humanity.
If you were ever a black girl in an empowerment program, arts camp or Upward Bound, “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Women” was given to you to read or recite to put you on a safe path to womanhood.
I’ve come a long way since 1993. I have bookshelves of poetry books and journals filled with drafted and complete poems. I earned a degree in Creative Writing and have had poems published. But when I think of the moments that convinced me of the power of a poem they include the day Maya Angelou looked out into the horizon and the world applauded.
Kelly Harris is the founder and editor of BrassyBrown.com