Millions of Americans were inspired by Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, at which the first Black, Asian and female vice president took her oath of office. But perhaps equally moving was the contribution of 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the youngest poet to ever speak at a presidential inauguration—demonstrating the strength of a new generation at this crucial turning point in American history.
The sixth poet to recite at a presidential inauguration, Gorman follows in the footsteps of distinguished poets such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. In her poem, titled “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman struck a chord of unity, bridging pain of the past with hope for a better future.
“In my poem, I’m not going to in any way gloss over what we’ve seen over the past few weeks and, dare I say, the past few years. But what I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words to envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal,” she told the New York Times, ahead of her performance. “It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.”
Gorman, a Los Angeles native, has been a growing force for several years. She became the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at age 16, and the first National Youth Poet Laureate in history soon after.
As a high school student at New Roads School in Santa Monica, she worked Feminist Majority Foundation’s Girls Learn International program, empowering fellow young women to pursue educational opportunities. (Feminist Majority Foundation is the publisher of Ms.) Gorman graduated from Harvard University with a degree in sociology last year.
She acknowledged the historical significance of her selection within “The Hill We Climb,” describing “a country and a time where a skinny [B]lack girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”
Gorman has also battled a speech impediment, similar to President Joe Biden, which she says drew her to poetry as a child.
“Having an arena in which I could express my thoughts freely was just so liberating that I fell head over heels, you know, when I was barely a toddler,” she said. “Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. … So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle with a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration.”
“The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror,” Gorman added.
Though a daunting task, she managed to blow listeners away with her five-minute recitation, soon reaching an even wider audience on social media. Her poem was met with high praise by public figures, from President Barack Obama to Oprah to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“The Hill We Climb” reads, in part:
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.
Gorman had begun writing her inaugural poem prior to Wednesday, Jan. 6, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, launching an attack on American democracy. But she completed the second half of her poem—including the above excerpt—in response.
Her message sows the seeds of unity while upholding accountability and reconciliation:
“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.”
“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,” Gorman concluded. “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.”