“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
I was on the Washington Mall that clear January in 1992, 19 years old, having voted in my first election the November before, when Dr. Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for the inauguration of President Clinton. I will never forget that day, standing there in the freezing cold, with my mother and youngest brother, seeing a speck of a tall African-American woman in the distance speak of the new president and the America we all came from and was dawning that morning.
I thought of how my mother had marched for civil rights and the rights of women, how my father had welcomed the black friends of my brothers and I to our Passover Seder table then insisted on hearing about their families, their traditions and how my late grandfather, at risk of reprisal, loss of business and professional standing, had given good paying jobs and no interest loans to the African-American men who worked on his construction crews, simply because it was the right thing to do.
And I looked at that tall woman in the distance, whose voice and words rolls from the steps of our capitol, like thunder rolling down the mountains. I knew that woman’s personal history meant she had every reason and cause to be bitter and disgusted with the country of her birth, the country that broke its promise to her and generations like her.
And I heard her say it was our country, all of us, and at its root was not the promise to get it right the first time, to try and do it better next time, with year, each election, each generation. That to be an American was to believe, fundamentally, that from night always came morning.
I will miss you, Maya Angelou. You were the guiding spirit of one of my proudest days as an American.