WASHINGTON – The country has a new president and a new literary star. In one of the inauguration's most talked about moments, poet Amanda Gorman summoned images dire and triumphant Wednesday as she called out to the world “even as we grieved, we grew."
The 22-year-old Gorman referenced everything from Biblical scripture to “Hamilton,” and at times echoed the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With urgency and assertion she began by asking “Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?” and used her own poetry and life story as an answer. The poem's very title, “The Hill We Climb,” suggested both labor and transcendence.
"We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we’ve found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves."
It was an extraordinary task for Gorman, who soon after finishing her poem helped inspire — along with Vice President Kamala Harris — the Twitter hashtag "#BlackGirlMagic and was being praised by former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama among others. Gorman is the youngest by far of the poets who have read at presidential inaugurations since Kennedy invited Robert Frost in 1961, with other predecessors including Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander. Mindful of the past, Gorman wore earrings and a caged bird ring — a tribute to Angelou's classic memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” — given to her by Oprah Winfrey, a close friend of the late writer.
“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise! Brava Brava, @TheAmandaGorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I," Winfrey tweeted. Gorman was also praised by “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, who tweeted “YES @TheAmandaGorman!!!” Gorman, soon responded: “Thx @Lin_Manuel! Did you catch the 2 @HamiltonMusical references in the inaugural poem? I couldn’t help myself!”
Among the “Hamilton” inspirations in her poem: “History has its eyes on us," a variation of the “Hamilton” song “History Has Its Eyes On You.”
Gorman, a native and resident of Los Angeles and the country's first National Youth Poet Laureate, told The Associated Press last week that she planned to combine a message of hope for President Joseph Biden's inaugural without ignoring "the evidence of discord and division.” She had completed a little more than half of “The Hill We Climb” before Jan. 6 and the siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
“That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” Gorman told the AP. She had said that she would not mention Jan. 6 specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
"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."
Frost's appearance at the Kennedy inaugural was a kind of valedictory — he was 86 and died two years later. Gorman's career is just beginning. Penguin Young Readers announced Wednesday that “The Hill We Climb” will be published in a special edition this spring. Two other books come out in September — the illustrated “Change Sings” and a volume of her inaugural poem and other works. Ceremonial odes often are quickly forgotten, but Angelou's “On the Pulse Of the Morning,” which she read at the 1993 inaugural of President Clinton, went on to sell more than 1 million copies as a book.
By late Wednesday afternoon, “Change Sings” was No. 1 on Amazon.com's bestseller list, and her September poetry collection was No. 2. She had 206K Instagram followers and 121.3K Twitter followers at the end of the inauguration. Hours later, she had 1.3 million followers on Instagram and 738,000 on Twitter.
Invited to the inaugural late last month by first lady Jill Biden, Gorman has read at official occasions before — including a July 4 celebration when she was backed by the Boston Pops Orchestra — and has previously met Michelle Obama and former first lady Hillary Clinton among others. She has also made clear her desire to appear at a future inaugural, in a much greater capacity, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
"We, the successors of a country and a time,
Where a skinny black girl,
Descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,
Can dream of becoming president,
Only to find herself reciting for one."