Amanda Gorman steals the show at US presidential inauguration | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.01.2021

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Culture

Amanda Gorman steals the show at US presidential inauguration

The 22-year-old poet was described by many as the star of the inaugural ceremony of newly elected US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. But who is Amanda Gorman?

"When day comes we ask ourselves / Where can we find light in this never-ending shade / The loss we carry / A sea we must wade / Braved the belly of the beast / We've learned that quiet isn't always peace."

These are the opening lines of Amanda Gorman's poem, The Hill We Climb, that she recited at newly-elected US President Joe Biden's and Vice-President Kamala Harris' inauguration ceremony on January 20. 

Now that poem and her presentation have catapulted her into the global limelight, with her works topping the charts just one day later, as Gorman herself noted. 

Yet Gorman's poem was difficult in the making, she told CNN in an interview. The work reflects the tumultous years that followed former President Donald Trump's election into office, the protests of the Black Lives Movement, as well as events in the last few weeks. 

Speaking to the New York Times, Gorman revealed how she struggled to finish composing the poem, a task she thought was "probably one of the most important things I'll do in my career." She was in the midst of writing when, on January 6, supporters of Trump stormed the US Capitol building.

Healing after the crisis

For Gorman, this was the night she sat up to finish her poem, adding verses about the events at the Capitol that day.

"We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,/ Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy," she wrote.

"...What I really aspire to do in the poem is to be able to use my words in a way in which our country can still come together and still heal," Gorman told the New York Times, adding that she aimed to do it in a way that did not neglect the harsh truths the country has had to face lately.

At 22, Amanda Gorman is the youngest poet ever to perform at a presidential inauguration, sharing the honor with other poets like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Frost was famously invited to read at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, while Angelou performed her poem On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton's inaugural ceremony in 1993.

'A skinny black girl'

Gorman, who graduated from Harvard University, was raised in Los Angeles by her mother, who is a teacher and has been her inspiration. The poet also mentioned her mother in her inaugural poem with these lines, which poignantly convey the struggles of the racially underpriveleged as well as Vice President Kamala Harris' rise to power: "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."

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris was the first woman, first Black American and first South Asian American to be sworn into office as Vice-President

Gorman took to creative writing at a young age, to combat a speech impediment. (President Joe Biden himself has said he has struggled with a stutter.) At age 14, she joined a non-profit organization called WriteGirl, which promotes creativity and self-expression to empower young girls.

The award-winning organization, which was founded in 2001, offers a mentoring program, publishes anthologies, showcases poetry workshops and publishes a blog, attesting to the appeal of poetry among young people. In 2013, it was honored by then First Lady Michelle Obama with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award.

On January 20, 2021, the organization hosted "an online watch party on Inauguration Day for its volunteers, alumnae and current teen participants to watch Gorman's performance," the website said. "WriteGirl has been pivotal in my life. It's been thanks to their support that I've been able to chase my dreams as a writer," Gorman said. 

In fact, as pointed out by the EducationWeekwebsite, quoting a National Endowment for the Arts survey from 2012 to 2017, the share of 18-24-year-olds reading poetry more than doubled during that period, "placing young adults above all other age groups" when it came to poetry-reading rates in the US. This, it should be noted, was the time when Amanda Gorman was growing up and going to school.

Amy Stolls, the NEA Director of Literature, told the Art Works blog in 2018, that: "I suspect social media has had an influence, as well as other robust outreach activities and efforts."

"Poetry is going viral…Social media poetry is suddenly everywhere: on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and increasingly in print, too," PublishersWeekly also wrote in that year.

Poet Jane Hirschfield told the New York Times: "When poetry is a backwater, it means times are OK. When times are dire, that's exactly when poetry is needed."

Passionate about political change

Watch video 01:58

Youngest inaugural poet in recent history talks of hope and courage

At age 16, Gorman became the first-ever Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, and the first National Youth Poet Laureate at 19 in 2017. Speaking to Today.com about her being named poet laureate, Gorman said she was passionate about social and political change. She felt like she  "must write, I must speak up, because too many people have been kept away from that opportunity."

Gorman has even expressed her wish to run for president one day, as former Secretary of State and former senator Hillary Clinton applauded on Twitter after the inauguration ceremony on Wednesday.

Gorman's works include the poetry collection The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, and two upcoming books, Change Sings, for children and The Hill We Climb, which are due out in September 2021, but which can now be pre-ordered, as Gorman raved on her Twitter account. 

A symbolic outfit

Gorman enjoys a huge following in social media. She has more than a million followers on Twitter and over 2.2 million on Instagram, where she posts pictures of her upcoming books, motivational quotes and thoughts about events and incidents, like the presidential elections and the death of actor Chadwick Boseman. Videos of her performances gather hundreds of thousands of clicks and subscribers on YouTube, and the numbers are likely to soar even more in the coming days.

Her performance at the inauguration also grabbed people's eyes due to the clothes and accessories she wore to the ceremony.

She said she chose her bright yellow Prada coat because of designer Miuccia Prada's feminist leanings. But the idea itself was inspired by First Lady Jill Biden, who first spotted the poet in a video performing at the Library of Congress in 2017 and reached out to her. At the time, Biden complimented Gorman on her yellow outfit.

Gorman said her hoop earrings were chosen by talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who also sent Maya Angelou a Chanel coat and gloves when she performed at the White House in 1993. Gorman's ring symbolized a caged bird as a tribute to Angelou's famous lines, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 

Speaking to Vogue, Gorman said she was "weaving her own kind of symbolism" into the outfit. "It's really special and important to me to deliver these nuggets of information and sentimentality as I'm reciting the poem," she added.

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