“If only we’re brave enough to be it”: Inaugural poet marks the hopes of a nation

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
CONTRIBUTOR

Amanda Gorman, depicted by a high school classmate. Find the artist on Instagram @sannalegan. Photo courtesy of Sanna Legan.

The Inauguration of President Joseph Biden had two unexpected standouts. The first was the Bernie Sanders meme. The second was National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.

Stepping up to the podium mere moments after the newly-sworn-in President Biden spoke, Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb” that touched the hearts of the nation.

Gorman joined the line of inaugural poets including Robert Frost, Elizabeth Alexander and Maya Angelou. The earrings and ring Gorman wore paid tribute to Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

At age 22, Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. The Los Angeles native is also an alumna of Harvard University and the first National Youth Poet Laureate. She included her history in her poem.

 

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”

 

Gorman also has an audio processing disorder and speech impediment.

In 2018, she told the Harvard Crimson she saw her disability as a gift and a strength.

“Every now and then there will be a little girl at an event, and she goes, ‘I have an auditory processing disorder too and I sound exactly like you,’” she said.

She recently told the LA Times that her disability has made her the performer and storyteller she works to be.

Her poem, which she finished the night of the Capitol siege on January 6, caught the attention of many. Writing for this time in our history, Gorman did not shy away from the harsh truths the nation faces.

 

“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”

 

She told the New York Times, “[I aspire to] be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal. It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”

In her poem, she pointed to the call for justice, one of those harsh truths.

 

“We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn’t always just-ice.”

 

Wanting to confront the current reality of America, she added, “There is space for grief and horror and hope and unity, and I also hope that there is a breath for joy in the poem, because I do think we have a lot to celebrate at this inauguration.”

She left the audience with a call for bravery.

 

“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 complete poem can be watched here, and read here. Special edition copies of the poem are on sale now. The poem will also be included in her upcoming poetry collection “The Hill We Climb” to be released in September. Gorman’s books and more can be found on her website.

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