In 2017, Amanda Gorman became the first African-American National Youth Poet Laureate. Recently, she captured the nation’s attention, reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. That day, she became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history at 22 years old.
First Lady Jill Biden asked her to speak, and she delivered a powerful performance with exuberant energy and “measured musicality,” as the Harvard Independent has described her style. The Bidens gave her no specific instructions on what to write but asked her to focus on “unity and hope.”
Since early childhood, Gorman has been writing poetry and overcame her fear of performing due to a speech impediment. Now she’s a force to be reckoned with, inspiring millions worldwide with her words. To her, poetry is the “language of people,” accessible to everyone, regardless of age or any other difference.
“Poetry has never been the language of barriers. It’s always been the language of bridges,” Gorman says.
Thus, poetry is open to everyone, and anyone can write poetry.
The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman
Amanda Gorman wrote the poem titled “The Hill We Climb,” the night after pro-Trump rioters sieged the Capitol building. As such, she didn’t gloss over those terrible events. Instead, she wanted to “envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal.”
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.”
Those words were heard worldwide, shining a light on a free people’s true power. Such words are the greatest fear of those who would-be dictators and the greatest hope of the people. To be certain, she knows it.
See Amanda Gorman’s performance below:
Collecting ‘Delicious’ Words
Since second grade, Amanda Gorman has collected “delicious” words in journals. They served as a place to collect a treasure trove of “word boxes,” selections from poems that inspired her.
From an early age, she had an insatiable appetite for learning, instilled with a passion for feminism and diversity from her mother.
Always, she wants to be “the one who’s being educated. I want the country to speak to me as much as, if not more, than I’m speaking to the country.”
Seldom-used words held a special attraction; words like veins, sprawl, thighs, or droop hit like musical notes with meaning.
In 2017, she explained the process for Harvard’s student weekly:
“What I’m really drawn to are poems that resurrect words that are on the fringes of language. And I don’t even necessarily mean words that are particularly elegant and long; I’m talking about words like ‘plum’ or ‘mollusk’ […]these are not words I use in my day-to-day English language, but they hit you as simple as stones – now I’m doing a poem,” she trails off, laughing.”
Due to her speech impediment, she was conscious of using words she could vocalize.
“I would have to change what I really wanted to say because I couldn’t say the words that fit the poem the best,” she said.
Words as Instruments of Social Change
Gorman is acutely aware that poetry can be powerful and political, using words as “instruments of social change,” as the Times reported.
Sometimes, she’s asked, “don’t make it political,” when asked to write a poem, which doesn’t make sense to her.
“All art is political. The decision to create; the artistic choice to have a voice; the choice to be heard is the most political act of all,” she says.
“Poetry is political because it’s preoccupied with people.”
Charged, Challenging Questions
Noting that tyrants often go after the language arts and poets first, Amanda Gorman believes poetry is at the center of what it means to be a democracy.
“[Tyrants] are terrified of them. Poets have this phenomenal potential to connect the beliefs of the private individual with the cause of change of the public, the population, the polity, the political movement,” she says.
Thus, when asked not to be political, it’s truly a request “not to ask charged and challenging questions.” However, she won’t accept such requests.
“…Poetry is always at the pulse of the most dangerous and the most daring questions that a nation or a world might face. What path do we stand on as a people, and what future as a people do we stand for?”
Although a poet may not have the answers, they always ask the tough questions.
Standing on the Shoulders of Ancestors
When she begins poetry workshops with students, she begins with two questions:
- Whose shoulders do you stand on?
- What do you stand for?
After asking her students these questions, she tells them how she answers them.
“I am the daughter of black writers who descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
Gorman says these words as a mantra before every poetry performance. Saying this, she can face her anxiety about speaking in public, though you would never know. Like all of us, she faces doubts but overcame them with a “point of realization.”
“What was the point in trying not to mumble these thoughts in my head if everything’s already been said before? But finally, I had a moment of realization where I thought if I choose not to speak out of fear, then there’s no one that my silence is standing for,” she said.
After that, she determined to find the strength to speak up, honoring her ancestors and standing on their shoulders.
See Gorman discuss her teaching methods in TED-Ed Student Talks:
Gorman once described how she sees her place among the poet’s past, present, and future.
“The poets who are existing now, the people who have come before me, and the people who will come after me – I imagine them as this swath of people rooting for me to manifest goodness.”
While she certainly radiates positivity, she’s also incredibly fierce, confronting the world unflinchingly.
See Gorman discuss her big break in auditioning for Broadway.
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A Tribute to Maya Angelou
At Gorman’s performance for President Biden’s inauguration, she wore a bright yellow Prada coat. Her choice of color was “a nod to First Lady Jill Biden,” according to CNN. At an earlier occasion, Jill Biden had complimented Gorman on wearing yellow.
Her yellow double-breasted coat was like a ray of sunshine, one of many fashion statements that day. However, Gorman was also wearing a significant ring, difficult to see on television. Oprah Winfrey gave her the jewelry, including gold hoop earrings and a ring.
“(Fashion) has so much meaning to me, and it’s my way to lean into the history that came before me and all the people supporting me,” Gorman told Vogue.
The ring in the shape of a caged bird had special significance, a tribute to African American poet Maya Angelou. The New York-based brand Of Rare Origin designed the ring, while her earrings were by Greek designer Nikos Koulis.
Angelou, one of Gorman’s favorite poets, once helped mark the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, January 20, 1993. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” evoked the past from the dinosaurs to present-day struggles. Each day presents hope and “space to place new steps of change.”
“Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
With hope —
See Maya Angelou’s performance at Clinton’s inauguration below:
Featured images: Screenshots via YouTube