Amanda Gorman: Award-winning 22-year-old African American poet and activist stole the Biden-Harris inauguration show with the reading of her soul-stirring poem “The Hill We Climb”

Amanda Gorman, an award-winning African American poet and activist, became the youngest presidential inauguration poet in U.S. history when she delivered her soul-stirring poem "The Hill We Climb," at the historical inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20, 2021.
American poet and activist Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” during the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2021. Photo credit: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II / Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

By Obert Madondo | @Obiemad

Amanda Gorman made history and captured the hearts of millions people in the United States and around the world when she recited her original poem “The Hill We Climb,” at the Jan. 20, 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala D. Harris. The 22-year-old African American poet and activist became the 6th and youngest person in U.S. history to recite a poem at the venerated tradition of the transfer of presidential power.

Like President Biden, who has a life-long stuttering problem, Gorman struggled with a speech impediment earlier in life. She overcame the impediment by reciting difficult words out loud and practicing spoken word.

Then, in 2014, aged 16, Gorman was named Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. In 2017, the Los Angeles native became the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, aged 19.

Gorman has spoken or performed at prominent American institutions, including the Lincoln Center, White House, and Library of Congress. She graduated from Harvard University, where she studied Sociology, in 2020.

In 2015, Gorman published a collection of poetry entitled, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough”. Gorman’s forthcoming poetry collection, titled, “The Hill We Climb” and “Change Sings”, her debut children’s book, will be published by Penguin Random House in September 2021.

Gorman founded One Pen One Page (OPOP), an organization dedicated to empowering underserved youth through free creative writing programs and publishing opportunities.

Issues of race, feminism, marginalization, oppression, Black Americans’ painful historical experience, and the condition of the African diaspora, are at the heart of Gorman’s award-winning art and activism.

Maya Angelou

With her reading of her five-minute poem “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, Gorman joined the ranks of American literary titans.

Elizabeth Alexander, an American poet, playwright and essayist, read her poem “Praise Song for the Day,” at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009.

Maya Angelou, the late African American poet, memoirist, civil rights activist and award-winning author of the acclaimed 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and numerous essays and poems, delivered her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

Gorman tweeted her tribute to Angelou, who passed on in 2014:

I would be nowhere without the women whose footsteps I dance in. While reciting my poem, I wore a ring with a caged bird – a gift from @Oprah for the occasion, to symbolize Maya Angelou, a previous inaugural poet. Here’s to the women who have climbed my hills before.

To which Oprah Winfrey responded on Twitter:

I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise! Brava Brava, @TheAmandaGorman! Maya Angelou is cheering — and so am I.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama saw strength and poignancy in Gorman’s poem and her performance:

“The Hill We Climb” references “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. After Gorman’s reading, Miranda tweeted:

You were perfect. Perfectly written, perfectly delivered. Every bit of it. Brava!

Former U.S. president Barack Obama tweeted his admiration of Gorman’s poem and her “perfect” performance:

On a day for the history books, @TheAmandaGorman delivered a poem that more than met the moment. Young people like her are proof that “there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it; if only we’re brave enough to be it

A quote from “The Hill We Climb”:

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.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

The poem concludes with a call to all to take a peak at the thing – and be the thing – at the end of the dark tunnel the United States just emerged from after four years of Trump’s divisive, hate-inspired presidency:

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

“Gorman communicated her truth and took her place within the political tradition of Black American women before even uttering a word,” wrote Karen Attiah, the Washington Post’s global opionion editor. “Gorman crowned herself as a voice for the ages… Her words were an elixir but also a source of pain, a reminder that we still must contend with dark forces.”

In a sense, “The Hill We Climb” – and Gorman’s reading of the poem – was a celebration of human triumph over adversity in this era of the “growing globalization of white nationalism” and our collective vulnerability to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Capitol Insurrection

President Biden was finally confirmed as the winner of the 2020 presidential election after a months-long campaign by Donald Trump, his predecessor, to prevent him from assuming power. Trump’s unprecedented campaign calminated in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump white nationalists, white supremacists, far-right extremists, QAnon conspiracy adherents, off-duty police officers, elected politicians, and ordinary Americans.

The siege directly caused five fatalities. Ashli Bobbitt, a 35-year-old military veteran and QAnon adherent, was fatally shot by police. Three other people lost their lives in riot-related “medical emergencies” according to authorities. The fifth, Brian D. Sicknick, a United States Capitol Police (USCP) officer, lost his life on Jan. 7, after getting “injured while physically engaging with protesters” during the Jan. 6 insurrection, according to a police statement. A pro-Trump thug reportedly attacked him with a fire extinguisher.

“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” said Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the 3rd-ranking House Republican, in a statement. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

In a personal statement posted to Twitter, former First Lady Michelle Obama blasted “infantile and unpatriotic” Trump and highlighted police’s undisguised coddling of the former president’s violent “rioters and gang members”. She said:

Like all of you, I watched as a gang – organized, violent, and mad they’d lost an election – laid siege to the United States Capitol. They set up gallows. They proudly waved the traitorous flag of the Confederacy through the halls. They desecrated the center of American government. And once authorities finally gained control of the situation, these rioters and gang members were led out of the building not in handcuffs, but free to carry on with their days. The day was a fulfillment of the wishes of an infantile and unpatriotic president who can’t handle the truth of his own failures. And the wreckage lays at the feet of a party and media apparatus that gleefully cheered him on, knowing full well the possibility of consequences like these.

In his inaugural speech, President Biden declared that the United States’ “fragile” and “precious” democracy had “prevailed” over the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists”. The speech highlighted important themes that will dominate the Biden-Harris administration’s unfolding quest to make a “better” America after a hard-won victory that ended Trump’s “stormy and divisive four-year presidency,” including: “unity”, “truth”, “liberty”, “hope”, “renewal”, “resolve, “peace”, “opportunity”, “dignity”, “decency”, “the public good”, “goodness”, “love”, and “healing”.

In her poem, Gorman referenced the U.S. Capitol assault. She told CNN that the unprecedented attack had inspired her to deliver “a message of hope, ingenuity and healing” through her inauguration poem:

I was not surprised at what happened. I had seen the signs in the symptoms for awhile. I was not trying to turn a blind eye to that. But what it did, it energized me even more to believe that much more firmly, in a message of hope, ingenuity and healing. I thought that was the type of poem that I need to write, it is the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear.

Vice President Harris was inaugurated as the first African American person, first Indian American person, and first daughter of immigrants to serve as Vice President of the United States. Fittingly, Harris was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, another trailblazing woman who made history in 2009 when she became the United States’ first Latina Supreme Court justice.

Future presidential run

In her victory speech after the 2020 presidential election, Vice President Harris, said:

But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.

In 2018, The Boston Globe saw in Gorman “a young poet for whom words are not enough“. Even before her break-out reading of “The Hill We Climb” at the President-Harris inauguration ceremony, Gorman had declared her intention to run for president in 2036. In her poem, she described herself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother [who] can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”

In a tweet, former first lady Hillary Clinton, a former presidential aspirant, approved of Gorman’s future presidential run:

Wasn’t @TheAmandaGorman’s poem just stunning? She’s promised to run for president in 2036 and I for one can’t wait.

In February, Gorman graced the coveted cover of TIME Magazine. Her profile, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and listed under the “Phenoms” category, has Gorman as a member of TIME’s Next 100.

“The Hill We Climb”

A special edition of “The Hill We Climb,” with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, will be released by Penguin Random House in March, 2021. Meanwhile, below is the full text of “The Hill We Climb” as delivered by Amanda Gorman at the historical inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris in Washington D.C. on Jan. 20, 2021:

When day comes, we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
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.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine,
but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade,
but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

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.
In this truth, in this faith, we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.
We feared it at its inception.
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour,
but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So while once we asked, ‘How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?’
now we assert, ‘How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?’
We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy and change, our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the west.
We will rise from the wind-swept north-east where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked south.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country,
our people, diverse and beautiful,
will emerge, battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The Canadian Progressive obtained the image accompanying this article from the Flickr account of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is being used under a Creative Commons (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. We resized and cropped the image, as permitted under the license, to fit our publication’s style and taste.

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive and The Zimbabwean Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad
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