Up Next

Inauguration 2021

If Black Girl Magic was the inaugural poet

A luminous Amanda Gorman gave us words of repair and reflection

I bid my daughter return to the house, waving dramatically for her to run. This young sister, Amanda Gorman, a former National Youth Poet Laureate, you have to hear her.

Gorman, 22, the youngest inaugural poet, was speaking for the nation as if she was conjured for the moment. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, she was bringing words of repair and reflection and reconstitution.

“We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

Gorman was small against the backdrop of the marble, and the moment and the dignitaries arrayed behind her, but perfectly intact. Her coat long and goldenrod, her hair twisted and piled high, she was brown and iridescent in the afternoon sun. And as she was speaking, I was distracted by her luminosity. Who is this young woman declaiming:

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.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

Gorman, like President Joe Biden, struggled with a speech impediment as a child. Hers was a difficulty in pronouncing certain letters that gave her “a type of imposed voicelessness.”

I hadn’t known her story before Inauguration Day. I hadn’t known she was going to be there or read her poem, The Hill We Climb. Then again, we didn’t fully know the weight of the last four years until we watched the rituals of this day and felt ourselves lifted. In the swirl of the light and the history of the day, or perhaps it was the emotion of the moment, it felt like Gorman was being whispered of and cosigned by a righteous chorus of poets.

Young, gifted and Black.

This is a song for the genius child.

Former National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman arrives at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20 in Washington.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

As our new president listened transfixed, our new vice president sat raptly and our new first lady — call her Dr. Biden — nodded in affirmation, I repeated her name. But I wondered who she really was. It was the words of another former inaugural poet, Maya Angelou, answering for herself and for the ages who whispered the answer. For all of us who live to see a better day. She was the dream and the hope of the enslaved. Like the ones who built the Capitol where Gorman now stood. It almost seems as if they planted her more than 200 years before, for a moment such as this.

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. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare. It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. This effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

Gorman finished speaking and rushed away, a small, Black woman-child, her head down, barely stopping to nod to those who reached out to touch her. She had spoken her piece. And given America her best word.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.