UConn Reads: ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’

Poet Maya Angelou recites her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in Washington D.C., Jan. 20, 1993. (Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)
In a reflection on the history of refugees and immigration in this country, Brandon Murray turns to Maya Angelou's poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' for inspiration. Here, Angelou recites the poem at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1993. (Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

Thanh Nguyen, author of this year’s UConn Reads selection The Refugees, will deliver a keynote address at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts at 7 p.m. on April 10. His talk is free and open to the public.

On March 4, 1861, with civil war on the horizon, Abraham Lincoln closed his first inaugural address with a call for unity: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In the 157 years since, the better angels of our nature have been tested through war at home and abroad, economic strife and inequity, racial discord and hate, and general fear and uncertainty.

When such fear and uncertainty abound, we often shout over our better angels. Richard Nixon noted as such in his first inaugural address in 1969, in words that resonate today:

When we listen to “the better angels of our nature,” we find that they celebrate the simple things, the basic things – such as goodness, decency, love, kindness.
Greatness comes in simple trappings. The simple things are the ones most needed today if we are to surmount what divides us, and cement what unites us.
To lower our voices would be a simple thing.
In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another – until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.

In America, when we listen to each other’s voices, we find a common thread that unites us – this land is our adopted home; and, as Woody Guthrie would like us to remember, it was made for you and me.

Except for indigenous peoples, Americans came to this land from somewhere else. Catholics, Japanese, Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, Cubans, Cambodians – we all came to this country for a new life, a new chance to write our personal histories, and strive to fulfill our potentials.

We cannot learn from one another until … we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices. — Richard Nixon

For her part, America didn’t (and doesn’t) always want us. In 1939, America refused to admit 900 German Jews seeking safe harbor. In 2018, America has refused to admit 100 Iranian Christians seeking refuge. American fears of the Other run deep, from the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s (prior to the founding of the United States), to the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, and to the blacklisting of suspected Communists in the 1950s.

When we lower our voices, though, we must try to ease our fears, too, with the realization of what unites us – we are not just a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of refugees.

To help achieve this realization, we can turn to American poet Maya Angelou for inspiration. At the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning.” She addressed her poem to Americans everywhere, and spoke metaphorically of the economic opportunity offered to Americans as a result of the struggles of their ancestors and the strength of our diversity. She proclaimed:

Each of you, descendant of some passed-
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers – desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,
The German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
The Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

All of us living in this America of immigrants and refugees have been paid for through the sacrifices and struggles of our histories. For indigenous peoples, African Americans, and others, our histories are scarred with pain, but a perpetually new and changing America is a place that may offer us hope and opportunity.

Angelou continued:

Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours – your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me,
The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.

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
Very simply
With hope –
Good morning.

Today, as in decades prior, we live in times of danger and uncertainty; domestic and foreign fears engulf our national mood. To leverage these fears, many place blame upon the immigrant, the refugee, the Other. But like the vast majority of Americans, these same people were themselves once the Other, the lost, the downtrodden, the hopeful immigrant or refugee.

We must look to our collective past and reflect on our mistakes, our prejudices, our fears. We must always have hope that every moment is a chance for a new beginning, a new opportunity, a new chance for reflection and growth and learning.

Through the UConn Reads initiative and this year’s selection, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the UConn community has the opportunity to reflect on how to shape our futures and the future of this country in ways that make us more inclusive, more hopeful, and more in line with the better angels of our nature.