On Wednesday, Joe Biden may have been inaugurated as president for the next four years, but 22-year-old Amanda Gorman crowned herself as a voice for the ages — by so emphatically reminding us of Audre Lorde’s declaration: “Poetry is not a luxury.”
Then Gorman spoke. And we listened, stunned.
Her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” opened with a question about the human condition writ large. “When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” But immediately Gorman dove deep into our America, both this troubled moment and hard moments past — into, as she said, “the belly of the beast.”
The young Harvard grad was sharing a stage with leaders multiple times her age, leaders who have steered this country into and out of disasters of monumental consequence, often in the name of American exceptionalism. Gorman spoke her commanding truth to all that power — that healing the wounds of the past should become part of the American identity. Let’s unspool the lines as she recited them:
The hill we climbIf only we dareIt's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,it's the past we step intoand how we repair it
America loves to celebrate the first and the young. Here was the youngest U.S. inaugural poet in history, reciting to mark the occasion of Kamala D. Harris becoming the first female, Black and South Asian vice president, who was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court justice. In a coronavirus-stricken country starved for celebration and ritual, it felt so good to applaud Gorman and all she represented.
But she was not a luxury. The purifying power of poetry has existed as long as humans have wielded words. And for women especially, as Lorde said, poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence." Biden’s inaugural words about unity and coming together were good and helpful and presidential. But it was Gorman’s truth that was the necessary one.
Necessary for Black women in America. In a country that so loves to profit from our political, cultural and emotional labor, Gorman reminded those of us who live at the intersection of sexism and racism that we do not have the luxury of settling for hollow #BlackWomenWillSaveUs platitudes. Not when this country is unable to save us from discrimination, police brutality or dying in childbirth.
Necessary for the young. Gorman and her generation simply cannot afford the luxury of designer political rhetoric accompanied by empty actions. Yes, America prizes youth, but older generations still ignore young people’s cries for a better future. In our moment of peril, they gaze out over an inheritance poisoned by climate change, lies, greed, bigotry and discrimination.
Necessary for all who want to see democracy endure. In an interview with CNN’S Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, Gorman said that she revised her poem in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, taking to Twitter (another medium that knows the power of brevity) to see what people were saying about the attack. “Wow, this is what happens when people don’t want to share the country with the rest of us,” she told Cooper. So she put it into her poetry: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”
Gorman is a source of pride, but her words are also a source of pain, a reminder that we — and young Americans like her in particular — still must contend with the dark, generations-old forces we told ourselves that we had defeated.
But, at the same time, her words were an elixir to a nation in critical condition, pure truth poured into an ocean of lies and division. May they help guide us to a better place.
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