This famous poem was composed in 1995 and was read aloud at the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the United Nations. Today, it is commonly regarded as one of Angelou’s best and most universally relatable compositions. ‘A Brave and Startling Truth‘ contains many of the themes readers familiar with her work are likely already well aware of. This includes racism, the pursuit of an equal world, and more.
Explore A Brave and Startling Truth
‘A Brave and Startling Truth’ by Maya Angelou is a powerful poem that alludes to the potential of humankind to create a peaceful world.
The poem begins with the speaker alluding to a “truth” that humanity will eventually arrive at. As we fly, small and lonely, throughout the universe, we exhibit our worst and best characteristics. The speaker describes how humanity is capable of acts of extreme cruelty and of creating experiences of the utmost beauty. We are reaching for weapons at the same time that we are providing tender care and creating elevating artistic compositions.
The speaker sees a world that will eventually come into being after humanity reaches the “brave and startling truth” of the title. It will be free of war, racism, fear, and hatred. It is one in which people live and die peacefully, children are free of the nightmares of abuse, our sons and daughters are not buried in identical unmarked graves in foreign lands, and all races are treated equally.
The speaker concludes by saying that it is only when humanity realizes its full potential, that we are the true wonder of the world, that we will be capable of crafting such an existence.
Structure and Form
‘A Brave and Startling Truth’ by Maya Angelou is an eleven-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length, ranging from only a few words up to ten or more. Despite the lack of a specific pattern, close readers are likely to discover that there are a few moments in which Angelou chose to employ iambs. For instance, lines one and two of the first stanza are written with iambs but are not consistently structured with a certain number of them.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of humanity and peace. These two juxtaposed themes are present throughout much of the poem. The speaker is well aware and does a great job of describing the contrasting nature of humanity. On the one hand, humankind is capable of inflicting extreme cruelty while, on the other, providing tender care and crafting elevating artistic compositions. The world is a place filled with equal parts hatred, and love.
The poem proposes a future in which humanity commits to creating a world of peace and freedom, having understood our full potential.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Refrain: the repetition of an entire line, word for word. For example, “And when we come to it,” appears at the beginning of several stanzas.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, “minstrel show of hate.” Here, the poet is alluding to performances during the Jim Crow era that mocked Black Americans.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three in the first stanza.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sooted with scorn” and “bruised and bloody.”
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “casual space” in the first stanza.
A Brave and Startling Truth Analysis
We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
A brave and startling truth
The first line of the poem contains an allusion to the Constitution of the United States. This famous document’s Preamble begins with a similar phrase “We, the people.” Angelou understood that most readers would recognize her allusion despite changing “the” to “this.”
The poet speaker describes humanity as small and lonely in the next lines. Humanity is trapped on Earth, a single planet travelling through “casual” space. The stars and planets surrounding earth are “aloof” or indifferent to the plight of human beings.
The speaker says that the Earth and humankind are headed toward a “truth.” It is both “brave and startling.” At this point, it’s unclear exactly what Angelou’s speaker is thinking of. It takes several more lines in order to interpret her meaning.
And when we come to it
And allow the pure air to cool our palms
Without revealing exactly what that truth is, Angelou’s speaker describes what happens when humanity finds it. When the day comes, the day of “peacemaking,” humanity is going to release the hostility from “our fingers” and release our curling fists. We will feel the cool air (of peace) on our palms.
In these lines, the poet juxtaposes the heat and anger that comes with a generalized rage felt by all of humankind with the “cool” air of peace and acceptance. Within these lines, the poet uses a metaphor: “fists of hostility.”
When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
The refrain “when we come to it” begins the third stanza. Here, the poet provides a few allusions to what kind of hate she hopes to see recede from the world. The first comes in the form of another metaphor. The poet writes, “the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate.”
Here, the poet is alluding to Jim Crow-era performances or exhibitions of racism and cruelty inflicted upon Black Americans. During her contemporary period, and stretching into the present, social, economic, and political policies targeted African-American men, women, and children within the United States. She sees a future in which this metaphorical “show” is over, symbolized by the curtain falling. She continues allusions to minstrel shows by describing men and women rubbing off the painted-on black face, a symbol of their hatred and “scorn.”
The following lines of the stanza reference war and the unnecessary loss of innocent lives, symbolized by the description of “unique and particular sons and daughters.” The speaker imagines a world in which racist policies and practices have receded and peace reigns. Angelou also includes a vision of the future as devoid of “bruised and bloody grass” and “identical plots in foreign soil.”
Here, she’s describing identical graves, perhaps unmarked, in foreign lands. This is meant to evoke feelings of loss, hopelessness, and homesickness and suggest that such emotions are no longer going to be necessary in the world of the future.
When the rapacious storming of the churches
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
In the fourth stanza, while using an example of anaphora, the poet describes how peaceful religion and worship are going to win out over “rapacious storming of churches” and “the screaming rocket in temples.” Instead, the “banners of the world” are going to “tremble” in the “good, clean breeze.” Angelou’s speaker is criticizing angry and racist practices that find their inspiration in religion and is promoting a world in which religion is free of such hate and cruelty.
When we come to it
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse
The fifth stanza provides readers with another iteration of the refrain. It helps imbue the poem with a specific structure, reminding readers of how it began with the earth and humanity on the way to a “brave and startling truth.”
When humanity arrives at that truth, we will let our guns fall, our children see the world as a place of peace, remove the “land mines of death,” and see humanity’s elderly live and die peacefully. Religion will be based on peace and love and not on “the incense of burning flesh.” Children will live their lives free of abuse and no longer be plagued by the nightmares, short-term and long-lasting, it might inspire.
Stanzas Six and Seven
When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
These are not the only wonders of the world
The sixth and seventh stanzas are very similar to one another. Here, Angelou sets up another revelation about humanity’s arrival at the truth. She describes that “when we come to it,” we will suddenly understand that what we thought were the “only wonders of the world” or not.
Throughout these two stanzas, the poet alludes to various incredible natural and human-made wonders. Including Mount Fuji, the Danube river, the gardens of Babylon, the pyramids of Egypt, and more.
These are not the only wonders of the world, her speaker says. It takes a few more lines in the following stanzas in order to figure out what exactly her speaker is considering a new “wonder.”
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
And the body is quieted into awe
In the eighth stanza, the poet speaks about humanity’s best and worst characteristics. The same race that’s capable of producing songs of “such exquisite sweetness” also reaches “daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger.” Humanity is capable of elevating and degrading in equal measure.
Here, readers can also find a repetition of the phrase that began the poem, “we, this people.” The poet also provides another example of a metaphor. She refers to the Earth as “this moat of matter.” As in the first stanza, the poet alludes to the unimportance of the world and all the people upon it when compared to the vast expanse of the universe.
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
The phrase “We, this people,” appears again at the beginning of the ninth stanza. A description of the Earth follows. It is noted as “small and drifting.” On our small and unimportant planet, the people of the world are capable of a great deal of evil and cruelty. The same hands that sap the life from the living are capable of healing with “irresistible tenderness.”
When humanity assesses its successes and failures, wrongdoings, and greatest accomplishments, we, the speaker asserts, “learned that we are neither devils nor divines.” Humanity is more complicated than that.
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Without crippling fear
When humanity arrives at the “brave and startling truth” that the poet alluded to in the first stanza, we will understand that we have the power to “fashion for this earth,” an environment in which “every man and every woman” can live freely. Every person, born in every country and continent on the planet, can “live freely without sanctimonious piety” and without “crippling fear.” It is through this realization that humanity becomes capable of crafting a world free of war, racism, hate, and fear.
When we come to it
We come to it.
In the final five lines of ‘A Brave and Startling Truth,’ Angelou’s speaker says that “When we come to it,” again, meaning the “truth,” we will see that humanity is “possible,” “miraculous,” and “the true wonder of this world.” Only when we come to those revelations will we “come to it.” This contradictory-sounding statement summarizes the eleven-stanza poem and should make Angelou’s intentions clear to every reader.
Humanity will be capable of crafting a world free of racism, war, hate, and fear when we realize that we are the “true wonder of this world” and are capable of crafting such a peaceful and hopeful atmosphere for ourselves, our elderly, and our children.
The meaning is that humanity is capable of crafting a world free of war, hate, racism, and fear if we choose to do so. Humankind will only be able to take this step into the future when “we” realize our value and the value of all people, no matter who they are or where they’re from.
Maya Angelou wrote this poem for the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the United Nations. She delivered it in June 1995. It was later included in a publication of her work.
Angelou wrote this poem sometime around June 1995 in order to read aloud at the United Nations. It came only two years after she delivered her famous ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
Throughout this poem, the speaker’s identity remains unknown. But, most people consider the speaker to be Maya Angelou herself. Many of the views promoted within the eleven stanzas of this commemorative poem can be found in other poems she published throughout her career.
The tone is inspirational and passionate. Throughout, the speaker expresses zero doubt regarding her opinion of humanity and what humankind can accomplish when they arrive at the “truth” that the title alludes to.
Angelou’s most famous poem is usually considered to be ‘Still I Rise.’ Other well-known pieces include ‘Caged Bird,’ ‘Human Family,’ ‘On the Pulse of the Morning,’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman.’
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some Maya Angelou’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Alone’ – is a moving poem. It explores the topics of solitude and loneliness in a way that all readers should be able to relate to.
- ‘Caged Bird’ – is an incredibly important poem in which the poet describes the experience of two different birds, one free and one caged.
- ‘Human Family’ – expresses an incredibly relatable message about family. The poet speaks broadly about the world, unity, and how we are all connected to one another.