The message had been to leave the day to the men. But poet Maya Angelou looked out Monday at the crowd that stretched from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington Monument and recounted part of a national history that only an African American woman could:
“Under a dead blue sky they dragged me by my braids just beyond your reach. …
“Through history, you wore a badge of shame.”
Angelou stood on the dais, behind the bullet-proof, bay-window plates, and intoned on behalf of millions of African Americans, living and dead, women and men:
“The night has been long,
“The wound has been deep.”
Foremost, perhaps, in the present generation of African Americans who have found a voice in literature for their lives, and their history, Angelou had stood before the same backdrop when Bill Clinton swore his oath as president. On that day in January 1993, she had read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” - a work for which she later won the Springarn Medal from the NAACP, one of the highest awards offered by the black community.
Monday, her words were less about sunrise and more about sacrifice.
“Across the years,
“Across the centuries,
“Across the oceans,
“Across the seas …
“Draw near to one another
“Save your race.
“You have been paid for in a distant place.
“The old ones remind us that slavery’s chains
“Have paid for our freedom again and again.”
And although controversy had hovered over Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s emphatic request that African American women stay home, the women who spoke did so on behalf of many black women who stayed home.
Along with Angelou, there were Cora Barry, first lady of the District of Columbia and a march organizer; Tynella Muhammad, widow of Elijah Muhammad; Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X; Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; and Rosa Parks, who had set off the Southern freedom rides one day when she would not be budged from the front of a public bus.
Said Parks: “I honor my late husband, Raymond Parks, other freedom-fighters, and men of good will who could not be here. … As an African American woman, I am proud.”
Angelou was the last of the women to speak.
She took command of the crowd with a look, and then proceeded to read, in a deep-throated, resonating voice:
“Clap hands. Let us come together to reveal our hearts. …
“Clap hands. Let’s leave the preening and stop imposturing in our history. …
“Call the spirit back from the ledge …
“Despite the history of pain
“We are a going-on people who will rise again.
“And still, we rise!”