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Literature

Amanda Gorman: “The Hill We Climb”

Photo : Stephanie Mitchell and Harvard University

On January 20, 2021, Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman paid homage to Angelou by greeting the new morning.

Born March 7, 1998, Gorman and her twin sister were raised by Joan, a single mother and an English teacher.

Gorman — who said she was inspired by Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” “because I’d never seen a book with a dark-skinned, nappy-haired girl on the cover” — said writing became her way to overcome a daunting obstacle.

“I had a speech impediment. And so I couldn’t use my voice, then I would author my voice on the page. So it’s really been a godsend and a lifeline for me,” she said in an article from CBS News.

The first time she read one of her poems in front of an audience, she remembers, “At the time, I was 14, and still suffering from a speech impediment that had affected me since I began talking. Would the audience understand me? Would they, like most people, wonder what foreign, exotic country I came from, and I would have to tell them that my accent wasn’t an accent at all, but a disability? I clutched my journal tighter in my sweat drenched palms and prayed my clumsiness wouldn’t emerge that instant, causing me to trip on my two left feet. As I stood, I experienced a sudden gratitude for the blinding lights. I couldn’t see everyone’s faces! That made things much easier. I opened my book and began to read.”

Inspired by a speech that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate, gave in 2013, Gorman became a youth delegate for the United Nations at the age of 16. “It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could accomplish,” she said.

Soon after, in 2014, at the age of 16, she was named the inaugural Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate. The following year, she published her first poetry collection, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough.”

She worked on a video her sister Gabrielle created, directed, and edited called “Rise Up As One”, which includes one of her poems, where she says, “You get a wave when one person rises up like a sun, but you get movement when the brave rise up as one.”

At the age of 19, she was named the nation’s First Youth Poet Laureate.

Gorman, at the age of 22, is the youngest poet in US history to mark the transition of presidential power. Dr. Jill Biden asked her to join the 2021 Inauguration Day festivities after watching her perform her poem “In This Place: An American Lyric” three years ago.

Researching the speeches of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and remembering Maya Angelou and the words of encouragement from previous inaugural poets Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco, Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Speaking on behalf of a younger generation which has witnessed gun violence in their schools, ongoing racial-justice strife, and a deadly pandemic, Gorman remembered the past and hoped for the future.

At her historic reading, she wore earrings and a caged bird ring – a tribute to Angelou’s classic memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” – given to her by Orpah Winfrey, a close friend of the late writer.

In her poem, Gorman described herself simply as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,” but quoted the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, saying in a previous interview:

“Eleanor Roosevelt said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. I feel my most empowered when I liberate myself to truly love all that I am, to refuse to consider myself inferior. And so I repeat a mantra to myself: “I am the daughter of Black writers, we are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”

Amanda Gorman was called , these are her words:

“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 just-ice

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 a 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 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 gold-limbed hills of the west,
we will rise from the windswept northeast
where our forefathers first realized revolution
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the midwestern states,
we will rise from the sunbaked south
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
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.”

In 1993, Maya Angelou, in her inauguration poem, read “On the Pulse of Morning”, saying:

“Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.”

Angelou, the second poet in history to read a poem at a presidential inauguration — Robert Frost was the first when he recited a poem at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, greeted the new morning, saying:

“Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister’s eyes, and into

Your brother’s face, your country

And say simplyVery simply

With hope —Good morning.”

As previously shared on the Peace Page, Maya Angelou, as a child, didn’t speak for five years after a traumatic incident caused her to believe her words had terrible consequences. She regained her voice after a teacher, Bertha Flowers, encouraged her to read poems, telling the young girl, “Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get . . . That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”

Angelou would eventually become one of the world’s best-loved poets, reading original poems, such as “And, Still I Rise.”

The Jon S. Randal

——
Photo : Stephanie Mitchell and Harvard University 

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