EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of two posts today analyzing the power of the presidential inaugural poem delivered Jan. 20, 2020, by Amanda Gorman, and reflecting on its place in history. The other, by writing teacher Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, explores the specifics of Gorman’s use of language.Like everyone watching the U.S. presidential inauguration Wednesday, I was awed by Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.” In just a little under six minutes it managed to capture not only the spirit of America — its energy and optimism — but also acknowledge the darker forces of nationalism and fear unleashed over the past few years. It is America’s first hip-hop inaugural speech, influenced by slam and spoken-word poetry, and it was flawless.
At 22, Gorman is the nation’s first youth poet laureate and the youngest poet to speak at a presidential inauguration (according to poetry.com, poets have read their work at only four presidential inaugurations — those of John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and now Joseph R. Biden’s). That may have been a strategic choice — she is 56 years younger than Biden, the oldest president to be inaugurated. If so, it worked: The poem radiates with the urgency of the moment, two weeks after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to prevent the certification of Biden as president. It was rebuke of the too-near present rather than a contemplation of the past:
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.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
Our blenders become their burdens but one thing is certain
If we merge mercy with might and might with right
Our love becomes our legacy and becomes our birthright.
That rebuke of the worst of our instincts — and the very structure of the poem itself — are rooted in hip-hop, the musical genre born in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx in the 1970s, long before Gorman was born. You can find it in “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” the Tony-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda musicals. Here’s more from Gorman’s speech:
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace.
In the norms and notions if what just is isn’t always justice.
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.
…And here’s part of a song from “In the Heights” that has a similar structure:
She’d say “Alabanza”
Alabanza means to raise this thing to God’s face and to sing
Quite literally “praise to this”
When she was here, the path was clear
And she was just here
She was just here…
According to The Washington Post, Gorman listened to “Hamilton” while she was practicing her speech and tweeted that she included two references to “Hamilton” in “The Hill We Climb.” (I only caught one, from George Washington’s farewell address):
Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.
Gorman also summons imagery from another masterful source: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. From his “I Have a Dream” speech:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the mighty Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only there; let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill in Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And here’s Gorman, summoning Americans from every corner of the nation to come together:
We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the West.
We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the Lake Rim cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
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.
When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid.
The mashup of hip-hop, King and traditional alliterative and prose technique have many on social media rhapsodizing about the poem, calling it one for the ages. As the nation continues to grapple with a pandemic, an economic meltdown and calls for racial justice, Gorman acknowledged our fear and distrust. But she also pointed us toward hope. Her words, perfectly timed for the moment we’re in, will surely endure.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editor at The Washington Post and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Maryland.