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Maya Angelou – Yet to be United States

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When Dr. Maya Angelou read her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” written especially for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, the ‘best kept secret in literary circles’ was thoughtfully revealed to the whole world. She is arguably the most influential woman of her race, but there is more to Maya Angelou than being an African American female. Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928, she has lived many lives in one, escaped a torturous and impoverished childhood to become a performing artist, poet, author, teacher and human rights activist. One of her earliest influences was Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African-American poet to appeal to both black and white readers. These lines from “Ode to Ethiopia” undoubtedly had a profound impact upon the young girl who read them: “No other race, or white or black, / When bound as thou wert, to the rack, / So seldom stooped to grieving, / No other race, when free again, / Forgot the past and proved them men / So noble in forgiving” (chron7a.html).

Maya Angelou is a citizen of the world, but her heritage is that of an American. She is not afraid to take her native country to chore for past sins, and expects her audience to do so as well. She writes poetry which rhymes, but like Dunbar, sometimes it’s every line, sometimes every other line. She is concerned with the literacy of children and writes poetry that is easily understood by young readers. This is essentially true of her 1990 poem, “These Yet to be United States,” and the subject is just as its title imply. It is a poem about the militarily powerful United States, which has been historically unable to successfully unite its racial and economic factions. In this original interpretation of the poem, it will be broken down into couplets and italicized for emphasis.

“Tremors of your network / cause kings to disappear” (678). With a push of a button, the American president can affect the course of world history, whether it be a coup d’etat relying upon the CIA to manufacture a revolution, leaders can be overthrown. “Your open mouth in anger / makes nations bow in fear” (678). Quite simply, when the United States speaks, nations listen. In an gradually more overcrowded international arena, Uncle Sam is Goliath and especially the third world countries are little more than powerless David’s.

Power has the ability not only to intimidate but paralyze lesser entities in fear: “Your bombs can change the seasons, / obliterate the spring” (678). Through weapons of war, the U.S. maintains and reinforces its omnipotence. The illusion is created that nuclear superiority has the power to change and influence everything, including natural occurrences like the changing of the seasons.

“What more do you long for? / Why are you suffering?” (678) After the fall of communism in the fall of 1989, the United States became the most powerful single nation on earth. Yet it seemed to be much more concerned with resolving conflicts that extended beyond its borders than easing the domestic tensions which were simmering at on its own shores. Perhaps solving the problems of the world is somehow easier (certainly more internationally prestigious) than cleaning up messes at home.

“You control the human lives / in Rome and Timbuktu” ( 678). Control is the key word here. This implies that in its harsh pursuit to impact the lives of everyone, the U.S. is something of a control freak. Rome could be a reference to the home of the Roman Catholic Church, which also exerts considerable control over human souls, and Timbuktu symbolizes the far-reaches of the American sphere of influence.

“Lonely nomads wandering / owe Telstar to you” (678).

The meaning here is rather obscure. Perhaps this is Maya Angelou’s version of “reach out and touch someone.” Telstar is apparently a reference to the long distance phone service which `unites’ these `yet to be United States.’ “Seas shift at your bidding, / your mushrooms fill the sky” (678). Again, this is refers to the desire for American dominance over all things great and small. The term mushroom describes the chemical cloud formation which accompanies an atomic blast. This tragic scene was immortalized in the newsreel photos of the Enola Gay bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force an end to World War II.

“Why are you unhappy? / Why do your children cry?” (678) Despite its international reputation as a superpower, the United States is still a country languishing in a turmoil of racism and poverty. Power doesn’t necessarily ensure happiness. “They kneel alone in terror / with dread in every glance” (678). In America, poverty is the silent enemy within. It strikes everyone, especially minorities. It often renders its victims homeless, and these unfortunate, displaced persons are passed on to the streets, constantly looking over their shoulders in fear.

“Their nights are threatened daily / by a grim inheritance” (678). For the homeless people in America, the nights are the worst, with street crimes at their peak after the sun goes down. In the much greater black-inhabited ghettos of the United States, poverty is an inherited condition which a child is born into and from which there is little chance for escape. Like the lowly castes of India, where generations are born, live and die on the same sidewalk, so too is the fate of the America’s poor.

“You dwell in whitened castles / with deep and poisoned moats” (678). This could be a message to politicians who have lost touch with their constituents, or it could represent the upper echelon of American society, most of whom are white. By isolating themselves from the harsh realities of society by building elaborate castles, they don’t have to observe the consequences of poverty — their black brothers lying in the gutters, i.e., poisoned moats.

The poem’s final lines are particularly poignant: “and cannot hear the curse / which fill your children’s throats” (678). If the parental figures in American society, whether it be the government or the affluent class choose to turn a deaf ear to the cries of their hungry and often abused children, they can plead ignorance to the existence of these insidious social ills. The final stanza of this poem could simply translate to, “hear no evil, see no evil, therefore speak no evil.”

Clearly, Maya Angelou sees the world through the eyes of a child. Government and society have a shared responsibility to ensure the education of its children so that they can make the world a better place. Nations and people must be held accountable for their actions. As she once explained, “We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay — and rise!” (Kelley kelley.html).

Maya Angelou is a visionary who hopes that one day the United States will embrace all of its citizens and live up to its name. She realizes that words have to power to incite and inspire with a greater impact than a nuclear weapon. As she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning” (82).

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