16 pages 32 minutes read

A Brave And Startling Truth

Nonfiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“A Brave and Startling Truth” is an 11-stanza free-verse poem by the American poet Maya Angelou. Originally written in commemoration of the United Nations in 1995, the poem explores themes of violence and kindness, human potential, and the responsibility people have to the world around them.

Poet Biography

Maya Angelou (1928-2014), born Marguerite Annie Johnson, was an American poet, memoirist, and activist. She is best known for her seven memoirs, beginning with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which explores her early years and personal experiences with racism, trauma, and sexual assault. During her lifetime, Angelou experimented with a wide range of careers (including becoming San Francisco’s first Black female streetcar conductor at 16), was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees, and received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent part of her childhood living with her grandmother in Arkansas. From the ages of seven to 12, Angelou didn’t communicate verbally following the murder of a man who had sexually assaulted her; Angelou believed (probably correctly) that the man was killed because she spoke out. She regained her voice after a teacher encouraged her to explore literature and poetry by reading aloud. Her family moved to California during Angelou’s teenage years. Shortly after finishing school, at the age of 17, Angelou gave birth to her son Clyde (who later changed his name to Guy Johnson).

Angelou began her professional life as a nightclub singer and dancer, appearing on Broadway and even releasing the album Miss Calypso. However, she turned to writing with encouragement from the novelist John Oliver Killens. Angelou moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, becoming immersed in the Black literary culture and social politics. In 1969, she published her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which earned national acclaim and accelerated her literary career. Angelou pursued artistic outlets in poetry, creative nonfiction, activism, screenwriting, theater, and music. In 1993, she read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost in 1961. Two years later, Angelou read “A Brave and Startling Truth” at the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.

Angelou died on May 28, 2014, at age 86. She was widely honored by the Black community, and by artists and leaders the world over. Today, she is largely remembered for her debut memoir and for her role in challenging and eliminating boundaries for Black artists.

Poem Text

Angelou, Maya. “A Brave and Startling Truth.” 1995. Poetry Chaikhana.

Summary

The speaker looks forward to the day when the world will arrive at peace and understanding. Then, the people will give up their meaningless hatred and fear, leaving their weapons and warmongering behind. Elders will be able to walk in safety and children will grow up in carefree innocence. The speaker reflects on what the world considers to be great wonders, such as the Pyramids of Egypt or sacred rivers, arguing that these are not the true wonders of the world. When people arrive at this place of mutual love and understanding, they will see that the true wonder is within themselves. People are capable of both great destruction and great healing, and have the ability to create a planet in which everyone is protected and welcome. However, people will not be able to embody their ultimate potential without first arriving at the threshold of love.

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