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Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning,” January 20, 1993

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


Maya Angelou was a celebrated author and poet, best known for her seven autobiographies. Angelou also worked as a civil rights activist with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; at other times in her life she worked as a journalist, professor and historian, playwright, producer, director, and actress. In 1993, Angelou delivered her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Clinton. Only three other poets have written and recited poetry for a presidential inaugural: Robert Frost in 1961 at the inauguration of President Kennedy, Richard Blanco at the 2013 inauguration of President Obama, and Amanda Gorman at the 2021 inauguration of President Biden.  Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning” is written in free verse and contains many influences, including the poetry of Walt Whitman (see the Chapter 7 Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855 Primary Source), Negro spirituals (see the Chapter 7 Negro Spirituals Primary Source), and the music of Bob Dylan. The poem uses the image of a rock, river, and tree to put forth a message of inclusiveness and hope.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who wrote and recited this poem? What was the occasion?
  2. What was significant about the choice of poet on this occasion?
  3. Consider the context in which this poem was written and performed. Why would the poem’s message be appropriate for the audience?

Vocabulary Text
mastodon (n): a large, prehistoric mammal related to modern elephants

sojourn (n): a temporary stay or journey

A Rock, A River, A Tree Hosts to species long since departed, Marked the mastodon, The dinosaur, who left dried tokens Of their sojourn here On our planet floor, Any broad alarm of their hastening doom Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, Come, you may stand upon my Back and face your distant destiny, But seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than The angels, have crouched too long in The bruising darkness Have lain too long Face down in ignorance. Your mouths spilling words Armed for slaughter. The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me, But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world, A River sings a beautiful song. It says, Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country, Delicate and strangely made proud, Yet thrusting perpetually under siege. Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon My shore, currents of debris upon my breast. Yet today I call you to my riverside, If you will study war no more. Come, Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs The Creator gave to me when I and the Tree and the rock were one. Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your Brow and when you yet knew you still Knew nothing.
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to The singing River and the wise Rock. So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew The African, the Native American, the Sioux, The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik, The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher, The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher. They hear. They all hear The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River. Plant yourself beside the River.
Ashanti, Yoruba, Kru: ethnic groups of West Africa Each of you, descendant of some passed On traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you, Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then Forced on bloody feet, Left me to the employment of Other seekers—desperate for gain, Starving for gold. You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought, Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare Praying for a dream. Here, root yourselves beside me. I am that Tree planted by the River, Which will not be moved. I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree I am yours—your passages have been paid. Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need For this bright morning dawning for you. History, despite its wrenching pain Cannot be unlived, but if faced With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon This day breaking for you. Give birth again To the dream.
Women, children, men, Take it into the palms of your hands, Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For a new beginning. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness.
Midas: in Greek mythology, a king whose touch turned any object to gold

mendicant (n): a beggar

The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. No less to Midas than the mendicant. No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your sister’s eyes, and into Your brother’s face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope— Good morning.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What does the Rock accuse mankind of doing?
  2. What is the River referring to in this phrase?
  3. Both the Rock and the River offer invitations to mankind, but under certain conditions. What are they?
  4. Where did the River receive its songs? How are its songs at odd with the actions of humans?
  5. Why does Angelou list all of these groups?
  6. What does Angelou reference in these lines?
  7. How does this short stanza signal a shift in the poem? Consider the preceding three lines.
  8. What does “it” refer to in these lines?
  9. How does the closing stanza reflect the context in which Angelou recited this poem?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain how this poem gives a message of hope.
  2. Robert Frost delivered the following poem at the inauguration of President Kennedy in 1961. Compare the message of each poem. To what extent do the messages of these poems reveal changes and continuities in the perception of U.S. history and future?

    “The Gift Outright” The land was ours before we were the land’s She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England’s, still colonials, Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed. Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she will become.

“On the Pulse of Morning”

Angelou reciting “On the Pulse of Morning” (video)