Amanda Gorman, the 22-year old who gave a stirring recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at this week’s Presidential inauguration, was exactly who the nation needed to hear. She is a powerful blessing. A widly wonderful wordsmith. A radically gifted writer. A shining light that used metaphors to part the clouds that engulfed our hearts and minds for a large part of the past five years.
Gorman, who is on record as the youngest national poet laureate, worked diligently for years to stifle a speech impediment that caused her to race past and omit words that began with the letter R. Overcoming that obstacle to become the sparkling orator she is definitely makes her an example for all of us that may have impediments or may not have the confidence necessary to command attention in public. She credits her work with Write Girl LA, a nonprofit organization that promotes creativity and self-expression to empower girls, for fueling her efforts as a poet, exposing her to mentors and feedback that helped her hone her craft at an early age. All of that work prepared her for this moment. For that stage.
Amanda is special. She is young, gifted and Black. She is all of those things. What she is not, however, is an anomaly.
No, Amanda comes from a long line of young and gifted Black poets and artists that make words dance. That give meaning and measure to the world in which we live. Seeing her on that stage moving that line forward made me proud, and made me think of those that came before her, like Ashley August, an Afro-Latina and Julliard fellow that was named youth poet laureate of New York City in 2013, and has gone on to become a professional actor, an author, and a touring artist. The now-27 year old has used her platform and and position as the 3rd rated woman poet in the world to speak out against racism, using Hip-Hop as her baseline while authoring the books “Love Handles” and “Licorice.”
I smiled as I watched Amanda, and thought back to when I first met Zora Howard, a Yale graduate who was New York City’s first ever youth poet laureate back in 2009, and listened to her speak about what it meant to represent the greatest city in the world, and about how being Black in America frames every aspect of her work. Howard’s beginnings with spoken word has propelled her into an acting and writing career that’s included authoring the poetry book “Clutch,” co-writing and starring in the film “Premature,” and winning an Emmy for the film based on her poem, “Biracial Hair.”
And it made me think back to recent times, 2018, and Chicago (where Gorman’s family has roots), when 19-year old Patricia Frazier was named the city’s first ever youth poet laureate, following in the giant footsteps of the legendary Gwendolyn Brooks, who once upon a time was named Chicago’s first United States Poet Laureate. Frazier was an introvert that peformed poetry so that she could feel heard, using her time with the Young Chicago Authors collective to ground herself and to use her path for something bigger than just herself. She continues to speak up about the effects of gentrification and about raising awareness of both the injustices and joys in her community.
There are so many others, from so many cities, who share Gorman’s passion, poise, and prose. So many more that use their powerful platforms to provide poems that move us to urgent action. That speak truth to power. Seeing Amanda there, on a national stage with her gifts (which included physical gifts from Oprah Winfrey that paid homage to fellow poet and inaugural icon, Maya Angelou), and being revered by everyone within the sound of her voice, let every little Black girl know that they are represented. That they are seen. It let every poet that came before her understand that what they did, and what they do, matters more than they could have ever imagined.
Amanda Gorman made America feel on the biggest possible platform. Her words made us pay attention. Made us want to be better. Let’s continue to, as the 22-year old stated, “not march back to what was, but move to what shall be,” which must include making the case for even more Ashleys, Patricias, Zoras, and yes, Amanda Gormans, giving them the space and grace to use their voices, and their words, to blow us all away.