“When day comes we ask ourselves / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” she asked, looking upon the physically distanced crowd in front of the United States Capitol on Jan.. 20. There were 2,000 people sitting in the chairs arranged on the Capitol’s white steps, in addition to 33.8 million people watching her speak from their homes, workplaces, and libraries — anywhere with a screen and a connection. This woman commanded attention not just because she was speaking at the inauguration of a president who had one of the most controversial elections in the nation’s history. Nor was it because she was a Black female and the U.S.’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. Amanda Gorman captivated the crowd because of the emotional truth and power of her spoken word poetry.
Amanda Gorman was born on Mar. 7, 1998 in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. She grew up with her mother, English teacher Joan Wicks, and her two siblings, including twin sister Gabrielle. Wicks encouraged her children, from an early age, to read books rather than watch television and impressed upon Gorman and her siblings the importance of education. In order to pursue a better education, Gorman took a bus every morning to a private school in a different and higher-income neighborhood than the one her family lived in, which exposed her to the severity of housing segregation as a form of racial discrimination in America. (Today, her poems often feature issues of social justice.) Her first forays into the world of poetry involved writing verses to songs without tunes, although she later began to compose lines with the expectation that she would speak them, not sing them.
When Gorman was 14 years old, she became a mentee in WriteGirl’s one-on-one mentorship program. WriteGirl is a Los Angeles organization that nurtures the creative writing interests of teenaged female and non-binary students with mentorship and workshops on everything from screenwriting to editing. Gorman came into WriteGirl when she was writing a novel, but eventually transitioned to focus on spoken word poetry once she discovered her voice on stage. However, Gorman has faced a speech impediment since she was a child, so she had to work hard to be able to pronounce the words she wrote the way others do. For example, Gorman could not say “poetry” with the appropriate R sound when she first began to recite her poems as a teenager. She thus experiences a heightened sense of impostor syndrome when performing spoken word poetry — she worries not only about how the audience may see her, as a young Black woman, but how they may hear her — possibly judging the way she pronounces each ever-so-important verse. When she was little, she was afraid of public speaking, partially because of her speech impediment; now, she has spoken at the highest podium in the land.
When Gorman was 16, she founded the nonprofit One Pen One Page, which publishes an online magazine by teenaged writers and has creative writing programs in Afghanistan and Kenya, as well as the U.S. Because of this and her other social work, Gorman was appointed the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 as a sophomore in college. She has since traveled around the world to spread the power of poetry, speaking in schools about its importance to reading-resistant students and performing her own poems at a United Nations summit and a Boston orchestra’s 4th of July celebration. Of course, Gorman has had to balance her speaking engagements with her continued sociology coursework in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. She graduated cum laude from Harvard University in the spring of 2020.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden was the one to propose that Gorman read a poem at President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration, as she was already familiar with Gorman’s lyrical prowess. The inauguration committee approved this idea, and Amanda Gorman learned over Zoom that she would be the third person to read a poem at a president’s inauguration, after Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. In a way, Gorman was prepared — for the past six years, every poem she’d written to be performed in public was composed with the themes of transition and hope in mind, like her works “In This Place: An American Lyric” (2017) and “Earthrise” (2018). The events of Jan. 6 unfolded when Gorman was about halfway through writing her new inauguration poem; they gave her a burst of inspiration and motivation to finish it. Gorman references the election dispute and riot at the Capitol in the final poem with the words “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.”
However, as Gorman performed “The Hill We Climb” after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as president and vice president, respectively, she centered themes of healing and progress in addition to tragedy and conflict. Gorman’s final words had the same intention as the Biden administration’s message of hopeful unity: “For there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it. / If only we’re brave enough to be it.”