There’s a universal consensus that Amanda Gorman stole the show at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. Her accomplishments are remarkable – at 22, she’s the youngest board member of 826 National (the largest youth writing network in the United States) and has three books coming out. But what I loved about her reading that day, and have grown to love about her work, is its quiet power. Her work is brimming with lines that demand the listener to not just hear the words, but to immediately engage with the content as she speaks. Gorman’s reading transformed the inauguration into a place for collective accountability.
After it was clear that Biden would take office, I noticed a sizeable amount of middle-class Democrats expressing the same sentiment: “Thank god I don’t have to care about politics anymore”. While I couldn’t be happier that Biden won the election, I’m sure that many of the Democrats who watched the inauguration that day were the ones who wanted to retreat back into their shells, as if the last four years were simply an anomaly. Everyone seemed to be moved by Gorman’s reading of The Hill We Climb, but I hope that the awe she inspired in people that day is the type of grips them, urging them not to become complacent again. The hill we climb is not a hill the President gets us over once the voting is over, but a hill we are collectively accountable for climbing, which we must remember is not restrictive to the United States in the slightest.
By asking us to be “brave enough to be [the light]” at the end of her poem, Gorman reminds us that civic engagement does not begin and end with voting, and that the kind of engagement that strengthens lives goes deeper than politics – at a first glance, the climbing of the hill could have been dismissed as a completed action now that we have a Democrat president in the White House. But, to Amanda Gorman, the hill we climb is the “victory” that lies in “all the bridges we’ve made”. One of Gorman’s other poems, The Miracle of Morning, was written early on in the COVID-19 pandemic and is all about unity in collective pain through small acts of kindness. People “ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof”, a parallel with “For there is always light // If only we’re brave enough to see it // If only we’re brave enough to be it”. Even after you elect the “right” president, it is still your job to hold them accountable, and this cannot be done on an individual level. Gorman illustrates that the kind of action that touches lives is on the individual level of kindness, and that “in suffering, we must find solidarity”.
Gorman says that the United States “…isn’t broken, // but simply unfinished”. It’s so much easier to give up on something by saying that it’s damaged beyond repair, and Gorman’s work insists that this is not the case. There is strength in “striving to forge our union with purpose” while being “far from polished, far from pristine”. There is strength in knowing that things aren’t perfect, but still making a collective effort, trying to finish what is unfinished, because it is not broken and there is still hope. Gorman sees that fear of failure is pervasive and that there is a sort of shame in having to build a country up, especially since it is both back up to what the US has previously been and further forward – to what we will make it. “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be,” she says in The Hill We Climb, and in The Miracle of Morning she calls on all of us to “not ignore the pain. Give it purpose. Use it”.
When people say Amanda Gorman inspires hope, I don’t see “hope” being used to mean the type of passive optimism characterised by “oh, it’ll all be okay now” or “someone else will save us”. Gorman describes herself as a “change-maker”, and, to me, the “hope” she inspires is the notion that now Biden is in power our climb is a little less taxing. But we still have just as far to go and we should be collectively working just as hard to get the change we want. It is our job to remember that we are still climbing today. In her poem In This Place (An American Lyric), Gorman describes the collections in the “noble building” of the Library of Congress as “burned and reborn twice”. There is nothing naive about her hope for the future, because Gorman’s version of hope is active, and she knows that there is no shame in admitting a country’s flaws and rebirthing it through collective action and accountability, as many times as it takes for “our people, diverse and beautiful, [to] emerge, battered and beautiful”.
Pre-order “The Hill We Climb and Other Poems” here.
Pre-order Amanda Gorman’s debut children’s book “Change Sings” here.
Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens
Image: Patrick Semansky