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SHOWSTOPPER

Read the poem that riveted a nation during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 20, 2021.
Reuters/Patrick Semansky
Brilliant.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published

The roughly six minutes that belonged to Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black poet from Los Angeles, may become what many Americans remember most vividly about Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president on Jan. 20.

Gorman’s recitation of her work “The Hill We Climb” was a showstopper, her performance as powerful and transformative as her verses.

Gorman has explained that she finished the work late at night on Jan. 6, the day of the violent insurrection at the US Capitol. She references the darkness and trials the country has recently endured, writing of “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy” and “nearly succeeded.” But she also delivers an ode to America’s resilience and a call to summon it. In the final line, she writes that “the light that is always there, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

The poet is herself a personification of that light. One section of her work reads:

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

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.

According to NPR, the young poet, like Biden, suffered from a speech impediment as a child. Biden struggled with stuttering, something that he still manages, and Gorman couldn’t pronounce certain sounds. She nevertheless became LA’s first Youth Poet Laureate at age 16 and, while studying three years later at Harvard University, was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate.

She isn’t the first poet invited to read at an inauguration who had to overcome an obstacle to communicating. “Maya Angelou was mute growing up as a child and she grew up to deliver the inaugural poem for president Bill Clinton,” Gorman told NPR. “So I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle with a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage in the inauguration.”

The connection between Gorman and Angelou wasn’t lost on others watching the event:

You can watch a video of Gorman reading “The Hill We Climb” and read the text of the poem, as transcribed by Los Angeles Magazine, below.

“The Hill We Climb” by 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. We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

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 a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

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.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew, 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 should make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in in all of the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it 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. That would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy, and this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can periodically be delayed, but it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith, we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us, this is the era of just redemption we feared in its inception we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour but within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves, so while once we asked how can we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.

We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free, we will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, our blunders become their burden. But one thing is certain: if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left, with every breath from my bronze, pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one, 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 sunbaked South, we will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful, when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, the new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.

Read more about Gorman and her forthcoming children’s book, Change Sings (Penguin Random House) on her official site.

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