Maya Angelou’s books of poetry, like her groundbreaking autobiographies, have topped best-seller lists. The first printing of the 32-page Amazing Peace was 230,000—a record for a book of poetry. Readers who are impatient with the ambiguity and complexity of much modern verse find Angelou’s poetry disarmingly casual and accessible on the first reading.
Although Angelou (then known as Marguerite Johnson) received only a modest public education in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco, she overcame sexual and spousal abuse and prostitution to become an autobiographer, poet, and teacher. She has become nationally known and respected for her work, which is more political and populist than that of many writers.
The political overtones in her work reflect her long history as a civil rights activist. She was appointed coordinator for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1959-1960) and worked on civil rights committees for Gerald Ford (1975-1976) and Jimmy Carter (1978-1979).
Angelou’s prominence in the arena of civil rights led to her being called on to create special occasion verse for political events. For Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration on January 20, 1993, Angelou composed and performed “On the Pulse of Morning.” At the time, the United States poet laureate was the scholarly African American poet Rita Dove, but Angelou’s triumphant spirit more broadly represented the Democratic platform. Angelou received a Spoken Word Grammy for the White House reading. Two years later, Angelou delivered “A Brave and Startling Truth” for the United Nations’ fiftieth anniversary.
During the White House’s Sixty-Third Annual Pageant of Peace on December 1,...
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