A Brave and Startling Truth

by Maya Angelou

Original Language English

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn and scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

-- from A Brave and Startling Truth, by Maya Angelou

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem by Maya Angelou was written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, but I think it's a good choice to remember Martin Luther King day, as well.

King is rightly remembered as one of history's great champions of civil rights and racial dignity. But Reverend King's vision was even broader and more encompassing than that. He spoke not just for black people, but for all people. He spoke up for the poor and dispossessed of all groups. He began to speak out strongly against the escalating war in Vietnam, pointing out how war and imperialist policies impoverished society, both spiritually and materially. He argued that, in a just society, money should not be wasted on war and should, instead, be used to resuscitate and rebuild our struggling communities so they can mature into vibrant centers of human capability and possibility.

This is not the safe civil rights martyr taught to school children and lauded once a year by politicians. This is the King who questioned not only institutionalized bigotry, but also institutionalized poverty, wealth inequality, war, and empire. And it's worth noting that it was only when he started to raise these broader questions that he was assassinated.

Some days we need prophets to make us squirm, not just safe saints we can acknowledge and then ignore.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pacifist, yes, but he was not passive. He was a fighter! His message, when we listen, still challenges us today to do more than get along or slightly improve the status quo. He called for an open heart, a strong will, and a dedication to all our brothers and sisters in humanity -- to courageously work and sacrifice in order to embody these truths of the human spirit in our lives and in the structures of society. Now that is revolutionary!

And that is the Martin Luther King I bow to today.

See what you see without editing. Don't fence in the heart or hold back the will to help. And have a beautiful day!

Recommended Books: Maya Angelou

The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women And Still I Rise A Brave and Startling Truth The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou
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