On January 20th, 2021, Amanda Gorman, a 22 year-old Black woman from Los Angeles, became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was a stunning piece that spoke of national unity and democracy. She spoke of grief, healing, hope, and of a country’s not-so-beautiful history and the possibility of reconciliation.
Her job was not an easy one. She had to write a piece that would inspire and bring hope to America, a country that was suffering from a deadly pandemic, political violence, and deeply divided people. It was a daunting task, but she executed it perfectly. She found the right ideas and put them in the right words and delivered the piece with poise and grace.
She echoed the same themes President Biden had repeatedly spoken of. Where Biden preached, “We must end this uncivil war,” Gorman echoed, “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” Where Biden called for “love and healing,” Gorman declared, “Even as we grieved, we grew,” seeing strength in pain.
Like Biden, Gorman had a speech impediment as a child. She struggled with pronouncing certain sounds and cited the impediment as one of the reasons she has always been drawn to poetry. She told NPR, “Having an arena in which I could express my thoughts freely was just so liberating that I fell head over heels, you know when I was barely a toddler.”
Her struggle to speak provided her a connection to previous inaugural poet, Maya Angelou. “Maya Angelou was a mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle with a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration,” she explained.
"When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” acknowledging how hard it can be to find hope, but she continued, “And yet the dawn is ours before we know it./ Somehow we do it./ Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
The poem opened beautifully with, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” acknowledging how hard it can be to find hope, but she continued, “And yet the dawn is ours before we know it./ Somehow we do it./ Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
It was rich with wordplay and simple yet beautiful language — “We’ve braved the belly of the beast./ We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,/ and the norms and notions/ of what ‘just is’/ isn’t always justice.” The alliterations of “braved...belly...beast” and “norms and notions” and the rhyming of “beast” and “peace” and “just is” and “justice” made the piece flow beautifully.
“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.”
On January 6th, she hadn’t yet finished her poem and stayed up late at night to add verses about the scene at the Capitol, writing “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.”
She spoke of democracy as a concept of the future and not something we’ve possessed or built, pairing it with “delayed” both times it was mentioned. Although not something one usually hears from politicians or political theorists, it’s something that philosophers have said. One such philosopher, Jacques Derrida, the French deconstructionist, stated that democracy was always forged and threatened by contradictory forces and thus is always deferred, always out of reach even in societies that adopt democracy as their governing principle.
It comes as no surprise after her spectacular performance that Gorman's debut poetry collection, The Hill We Climb, and children’s book, Change Sings, will be published by “Big 5” publisher Penguin Random House this September. “The Hill We Climb” was just a brief preview of her immeasurable talent and Amanda Gorman is proven to be a name that will be remembered in history.