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Learn why Bill Clinton invited Maya Angelou to speak at his inauguration


When Bill Clinton decided to have a poet read at his inauguration, he immediately knew it should be Maya Angelou.

Funding for Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is provided by IDP Foundation, Ford Foundation/Just Films, National Endowment for the Arts, National Black Programming Consortium, Anne Ulnick, Michael Metelits, and Loida and Leslie Lewis.


Major support for American Masters is provided by AARP. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Judith and Burton Resnick, Ellen and James S. Marcus, Vital Projects Fund, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation and public television viewers.


I was asked would I consider writing a poem for President Clinton's innauguration, and I said yes. And then I started to pray and ask everybody - little children - what do you think? I wanted a poem.

Nobody had done a poem since Robert Frost. Once I made the decision I didn't really think about anybody else.

Maya Angelou had spent a lot of her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, which is about 25 miles from Hope, where I was born. My grandfather had a little grocery store in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. When I read 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' I knew exactly who she was talking about and what she was talking about in that book.

That's a contradiction in terms: public poem. Poem is private and interior and all that and people as soon as the statement was made to the press, people would see me in the supermarket or on planes and say, 'How's the poem going?'

Finish that poem yet?

Exactly. I knew she got me, she understood the time we were living in. She understood the world we're living in and she knew what could be our undoing as well as our unchaining. Now we had no idea what she was going to say, and Bill didn't come with any set of directions like, 'well I'd like you to talk about this, and I'd like you to talk about that.' He just said I want you to write a poem and deliver it at my inauguration. But I knew she'd make an impression - she was big and she had the voice of God. A rock, a river, a tree: hosts to species long since departed marked the mastodon. And the minute she started talking you could just feel the change rolling across the crowd and everybody started listening.


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