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Meet Amanda Gorman, America’s Youth Poet Laureate

Among a sea of black and gray winter coats outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, poet and activist Amanda Gorman stood at the podium beaming in a bright yellow jacket, her choice of dress just as illuminating as the words she spoke.

On January 20, at age 22, Gorman served as the youngest poet to ever grace the stage at a United States presidential inauguration. As she read her poem in honor of incoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Gorman joined the ranks of celebrated poets like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, who performed at previous presidential inaugurations.

As she recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” the audience was captivated — as were millions watching at home on TV.

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true, that even as we grieved, we grew, that even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we'll forever be tied together, victorious,” Gorman read.

Despite the presence of superstars like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez at the event, Gorman stole the show with her impactful words. Amid a global pandemic and political unrest, her poem echoed sentiments of hope and regeneration.

“Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished,” she read. “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.”

Gorman is not only the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration, she is also the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, an honor given to a young person who demonstrates skill in poetry as well as advocacy. Gorman is a lifelong champion for social justice, focusing her work on issues of marginalization, oppression, feminism, race, and the African diaspora.

Growing up in Los Angeles to a single mother, Gorman fell in love with poetry at a young age. She was often found on the playground writing in journals, and by age 16 was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. She went on to study sociology at Harvard, but remained largely unknown to the general masses until her appearance at the inauguration.

While she joined the handful of poets who have been invited to speak at a presidential inauguration, Gorman was tasked with a historic challenge t: inspire words of unity and hope for a country that, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, had just experienced an intense bout of political violence; only two weeks earlier, rioters stormed the halls of Congress, leaving five dead and scores injured.

“We are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man,” Gorman read at the event. “And so we lift our gazes 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.”

When Gorman was contacted about the inauguration job in December, 2020, she wasn’t given any guidelines about what to write. “They did not want to put up guardrails for me at all,” she told The New York Times. “The theme for the inauguration in its entirety is ‘America United,’ so when I heard that was their vision, that made it very easy for me to say, great, that’s also what I wanted to write about in my poem, about America united, about a new chapter in our country.”

Gorman delivered her words with grace and received the greatest of praise for her performance. On Twitter, former President Barack Obama (one of the event’s attendees) lauded her for writing “a poem that more than met the moment.”

“Young people like her are proof that ‘there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it; if only we're brave enough to be it,’” Obama wrote, quoting a line from Gorman’s inauguration poem. Accolades also poured in on social media from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Lin-Manuel Miranda, congratulating Gorman for inspiring a great deal of much-needed hope for the nation.

In between her laureate responsibilities and sociology courses, Gorman has two books in the works due to be published this September: The Hill We Climb and Other Poems, and a children’s book called Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem. After her reading at the inauguration, preorders for both books made Amazon’s bestseller list.

Gorman’s performance at the inauguration has opened up her work to millions, offering a glimpse at the younger generation’s hopeful optimism even in trying times. The impact of her inauguration poem serves as a testament to the power of spoken words, and of our willingness to accept one another despite our differences. As Gorman has said, “When this ends, we’ll smile sweetly, finally seeing. “In testing times, we became the best of things.”

Photo credit: Alex Wong/ Staff/ Getty Images

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About the Author
Kristen Warfield
Kristen is a writer, mom and cat lover living in New York.
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