Passing time

Passing time
A poem written by Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou was the author of seven autobiographies about her childhood and early adult experiences. She left the world an important legacy when it comes to poetry about equality, racism and women’s rights. Two years ago, she passed away, but her memory still lingers on. This article is about this American poetess, civil rights activist and writer. This is the story of Maya Angelou. That it may inspire you to write (more). 

On April 4 1928 Marguerite Annie Johnson was born in St. Louis (Missouri, US). She would take on the pen name Maya Angelou and made her fame with the first of seven autobiographies. The first issue was entitled I know why the caged bird sings.

About I know why the caged bird sings

The book isn’t a poetry collection. It describes the first of her childhood years. It is a story about a child that grows up and faces both racism and trauma. At the time when Angelou was born (1928), racism was very strong in the southern parts of The United States. It wasn’t until the Sixties, that some changes took place, finally.

The assignment given by her friend James Baldwin was that she had to write an autobiography that would be considered a part of literature. The usage of techniques used in fiction novels, made that critics set her work aside as being fictional. Whatever it may be called, it is a book (or rather: a series of books), with the celebration of Black Motherhood, the importance of family, the wish to become more independent, self-definition and criticises racism as main subject. The books also lean on the wish to receive more dignity.

Strong subjects such as rape, violence and literacy were things Angelou wrote about. This book was well received and dominated the lists with most bought books for several years after 1970.

Why this book?

Why do we choose to start with a short view on this book? We are a website about poetry. To understand the poems, one must sometimes take a closer look at the lives of those who wrote this poetry. In the case of Angelou, her legacy of poems is fed by the experiences she went through during her life. Her poems are stored with the subjects she started writing about in her book I know why the caged bird sings.

Maya Angelou in 1993 at the inauguration ceremony of president Bill Clinton.
Maya Angelou in 1993 at the inauguration ceremony of president Bill Clinton. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Angelou’s life

Maya Angelou still dominates the lists of most sold poetry books today. She passed away on May 28 2014, now three years ago. The poems she left us, where – as said – inspired by her life. A life that would start on a day in April. She would grow up in St. Louis and Stamps (Arkansas).

By request of no other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. she became the coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1959. After that, she was appointed associate editor for the Arab Observer in Cairo (Egypt, 1961 – 1962). She would then continue her work in the Middle East until 1964. Then she was the feature editor of the African Review in Accra (Ghana, 1964 – 1966). In 1974, she returned to a changing America and was appointed by president Gerald Ford as member of the Bicentennial; Commission. It was Jimmy Carter, who made sure she got a seat on the Commission for International Woman of the Year. In 1981 she was appointed as a Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, North Carolina). This position she would hold for the rest of her life.

Angelou inspired many, including president Bill Clinton. On his request, she wrote the poem On the pulse of the morning and delivered this poem at his inauguration in 1993.

The creative skills of Angelou did not get unnoticed in Hollywood, as she would become the first black woman director. She not only directed, but also produced and starred in the movie Georgia. She would also make an appearance in television productions, such as Roots (1977).

In the morning of May 28 2014, Angelou was found by her personal nurse. She was dead. Stories of her so-called poor health, conflict with the fact that she was still working on a new book. This would be another biography. This time about the meetings with national and world leaders.

Her death had a great impact on the world. Former president at that time Clinton was moved by her passing away. President Barack Obama (his sister was named after Angelou) would openly express his deepest sympathy. It was Harold Agenbraum (National Book Foundation), who said that her “legacy is one that all writers and readers across the world can admire and inspire to.” True words, for a remarkable person.


What is the best choice to make, when it comes to the poems of Mary Angelou? There isn’t a best one, since all of her work is written with such a profound talent. A talent that is difficult not to remember. And if a choice has been made – in this case it’s Passing time -, what words can be said about this poem? Will they fit the poem?

Let’s start off with the basics. The poem was written one year after Angelou returned to the US in 1975. Although the poem “only” consists of 23 words (yes, count them), it’s still a powerful poem. The poem is about a person – maybe Angelou herself – with a skin like musk. This person tells a story about another person, with a skin like dawn. Opposites to start the poem with. This poem sums up the differences, the opposites. This is Angelou’s way of telling how time passes. To put it in other words: simply beautiful.

Passing time

By Maya Angelou

Passing time

Your skin like dawn
Mine like musk

One paints the beginning
of a certain end.

The other, the end of a
sure beginning.


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