By CHANDELIS DUSTER
Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate, challenged Americans Jan. 20 to unify and “leave behind a country better than the one we were left” as she delivered a stirring inauguration poem.
Speaking at a US Capitol that just two weeks before was the site of a harrowing attempt to overthrow American democracy, Gorman bridged the violence of January 6 with the anguish felt by so many Americans of color but described the country as ready to begin anew under President Joe Biden.
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,” the 22-year-old Gorman said, a reference to the deadly insurrection that, as she told CNN last week, was a catalyzing inspiration for her poem. “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.”
Clad in a yellow coat and punctuating her words with her hands, Gorman nodded not only to the perilous political moment but also the history and promise of a day on which Kamala Harris became the first woman, first Black person and the first South Asian to be elected vice president of the U.S.
“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,” the 22-year-old Gorman said in her poem, entitled, The Hill We Climb.
Gorman, who regularly draws from current political events in her work, spoke passionately Wednesday about the need for social change.
“We learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what ‘just is’ isn’t always justice.”
“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 gaze, 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.
“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.”
Gorman described crafting those final lines in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday evening.
“To be honest, I was concerned of whether I should include that last line of ‘be’ at all,” she said. “I was kind of deliberating between ‘see it,’ ‘be it,’ ‘free it,’ and then I said, you know what – we need all of these things at once. We need that cacophony. We need to realize that hope isn’t something that we ask of others, it’s something that we have to demand from ourselves, and that’s what I wanted the poem to end on.”
Gorman also explained how she had sought to reestablish the power of words during her inaugural appearance.
“To me, words matter, and I think that’s kind of what made this inauguration that much more sentimental and special. We’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated,” she told Cooper. “And what I wanted to do was to kind of reclaim poetry as that site in which we can re-purify, re-sanctify not only the Capitol building that we saw violated, but the power of words, and to invest that in the highest office of the land.”
Gorman was wearing a ring with a caged bird, which was symbolic of Maya Angelou, who wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and recited a poem at President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. The ring was a gift from none other than Oprah Winfrey, the young poet revealed on Twitter Wednesday afternoon.
Born and raised in Los Angeles by a single-mother and 6th-grade English teacher, Gorman started writing poems when she was a child, but found it terrifying to perform due to a speech impediment. She overcame that fear by drawing confidence from former President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr., and practices songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton.
She previously told CNN that she drew inspiration for the poem from the two poems read at Barack Obama’s inauguration – Richard Blanco’s 2013 One Today and Elizabeth Alexander’s 2009 Praise Song for the Day – and writers, like Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass, whom she feels have spoken to the ideals of a nation.
She was halfway through writing the inauguration poem when she saw the Capitol riot, and she previously told CNN she would attempt to “communicate a message of joining together and crossing divides.”