Arts & Entertainment Editor
The sun illuminated Amanda Gorman during President Joe Biden’s inauguration as she read the first line to her poem, “When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” Gorman was the first U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and the youngest inaugural poet at 22 years old. As she delivered her 5-minute long poem, her words captivated the U.S. and provided a reminder of why art is vital in sustaining society and maintaining our democracy, especially now.
Gorman’s poem connected to so many other important speeches in U.S. history and served as a reminder that we must carry our past, stride towards improvement and unity, and look to the future with hope. She first nods to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln says, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” This nod reminds us that we must be dedicated to the unfinished work that has been laid down by those who came before us.
“The Hill We Climb” continues by referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, “We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.” Almost 60 years after King’s speech, we are still fighting for a nation that, in King’s words, “will not judge by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This reference echoes President Biden’s call for unity in his inaugural speech that followed, addressed to a nation that has become so divided, especially over the past four years.
As Gorman says, “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid,” she refers to George Washington’s farewell address, where the biblical phrase is mentioned multiple times. The Mount Vernon Organization said, “The phrase refers to the independence of the peasant farmer who is freed from military oppression.” Gorman calls attention to the fact that we are told we are in the U.S., the land of the free, but what must it take for us to be truly free? Her answer? “That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.”
One of the most powerful references made in Gorman’s poem is the reference to “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, who was the inaugural poet at Clinton’s 1993 swearing-in, “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.” Americans must muster up the courage to rebuild and to recover from the damage left by the Trump administration. This also echoes the sentiment of Biden’s campaign motto of “Build Back Better.”
Towards the very end of the poem, Gorman recites, “And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.” The last three words pay tribute to two of Langston Hughes’s poems “I, Too” and “Still Here.” “I, Too” was published during the height of the Harlem Renaissance and is a cry against American racism. Hughes calls attention to the fact that Black people have contributed much to American culture, but hardly ever get recognized for it. Black voices get drowned out and othered despite the fact that they are just as American as those who are white.
Art, specifically poetry, has the power to uplift voices that often get drowned out. Especially in modern times, young poets are often spokespeople for their communities. Poets remind us that words have substantial power, that history has its eyes on us, and that it’s up to us to do better. We must remember the past and all of those who have fought for their rights and their freedom. Never forget the words they spoke and the hopes they had for the future. Remember their cries for unity and their cries to be heard. Remember that this is the U.S. in all its unfinished, benevolent, and battered beauty. Gorman serves as a reminder that art is a living, breathing history striving to remind us of how far we’ve come and the work we still must put into sustaining our imperfect democracy.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Sage Amdahl/Quaker Campus