Amanda Gorman. The name meant nothing to me, until she spoke at the Inauguration of President Biden and Vice–President Harris. She stole the show. She spoke words of hope and power.
This 22–year–old black woman from Los Angeles is the youngest inaugural poet laureate in history. She follows in the footsteps of other poets who have written and spoken their poems at inaugurations—Robert Frost at Kennedy’s inauguration; Maya Angelou at Clinton’s first inauguration, and Miller Williams at Clinton’s second. Elizabeth Alexander and Richard Blanco for the two inaugurations of Barack Obama. And now, Amanda Gorman.
I was transfixed. So were countless others. In quite a wonderful interview later that night, CNN reporter Anderson Cooper was gob–smacked as he interviewed this remarkable and strong young woman. She had been working on the poem since December; when the insurrection of January 6 happened, she refused to let those horrific events derail her. She wove that terrible day into her poem for this bright day, to help her “write a message of hope and healing and unity for the nation.”
And she did. She embodied a powerful hope in a dark time.
She spoke powerful, hopeful words. “To me, words matter,” she said in that interview. “I tried to reclaim poetry to repurify, resanctify, not only the Capitol building which we saw violated, but also the power of words.”
If you haven’t heard he perform her poem, I encourage you to do so. Google the title of the poem, “The Hill We Climb”. It is a tour de force.
For me, this is what hope looks like. Why do I say that?
Hope begins with truth–telling. Many people think that hope is about pretending that the ugly doesn’t exist, and that the future will somehow be better. But that’s not hope. That’s an optimism based in a denial of reality.
Real hope, deep hope, begins with telling the truth about what happened, about what is happening, about the danger and fear of the moment. Sometimes it sounds like lament. Amanda Gorman told the truth, but refused to give in to despair. She is honest about the chaos, but will not be victimized by it. She testifies powerfully about what is wrong and then holds a light to show the way to what is right.
“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 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 justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.”
The words provide a startling insight into what is truly happening. Dressing in bold, bright colours of yellow and red, she performed a liturgy of hope. Her words danced in the air as her fingers traced their meaning.
She spoke truth. Then she took the next step. She began to seek a way through the pain so she could point to what unites us. To use Abraham Lincoln’s words from his first inaugural speech, she appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”
“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.”
She appeals to the ideal of unity in diversity. We can only move into the future as we work together for the welfare of all. Each of us is blessed as we draw together into a community which seeks to find the best for all. We don’t ignore what we’ve just gone through. We seek to improve our actions. We seek to do better. We seek to be better.
“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 closes with a call to action.
“We will rise from the golden 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 sun–baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover. And from 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 of flame and unafraid. The new dawn balloons 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.”
She knows the truth that if we are to find hope in any situation, we must be that hope. We must be the light, “if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This is what hope looks like. We tell the truth. We seek a way through the pain. We heed the call to be the change our world needs.
At the end of the interview, Cooper asked her about a mantra she uses whenever she performs her poetry. She answered. “I’m the daughter of black writers; we’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
Amanda Gorman answered that call. This is a woman to watch. She has shown us what hope looks like.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook