The Presidential Inauguration of 1993

Maya Angelou composed “On the Pulse of Morning” for the occasion of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993. In a widely praised performance, she read the poem aloud as part of the ceremony, drawing on her formidable talent as an actor and performer. Her reading followed Clinton’s speech, and the themes of her poem resonated strongly with similar themes outlined in his inaugural address to the nation. Both Clinton and Angelou underscored the central ideas of welcoming change, embracing social inclusion, and facing the past. In this sense, Angelou’s poem must be understood as offering broad support of Clinton’s political vision for a multicultural American society. That said, it’s also important to note that Angelou’s poem speaks to more than just the specific occasion for which it was written. “On the Pulse of Morning” also responds to the poem written by Robert Frost for the 1961 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Titled “The Gift Outright,” Frost’s poem depicted British colonization and westward expansion in a positive light, as inevitable stages in the process of enhancing the land. Angelou effectively rewrote Frost’s poem to draw attention to the grave violence of colonization and expansion.

African American Spirituals

Though Maya Angelou’s poetry exists in written form, her most famous poems are best remembered from spellbinding performances she herself gave of them. This is certainly the case for “On the Pulse of Morning,” which Angelou debuted in her powerful reading of the poem on live television, during President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration ceremony. The performative aspects of Angelou’s poetry indicate a link to oral tradition, and particularly to African American spirituals. Spirituals belong to a Black musical tradition that emerged during the time of slavery, and which featured songs that described the hardships of life as a plantation slave. Despite the difficult subject matter of these songs, the point of singing them was to help gather the strength to survive. This tradition evolved into the genre we now identify as “the blues.” Like many spirituals, Angelou’s poems frequently discuss matters of hardship and oppression, but usually with an overarching message of survival. In the case of “On the Pulse of Morning,” the speaker recounts the violence of Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement in U.S. history. However, they do so with the aim of reckoning with that past and enabling a better future.