In her poem, Gorman referenced everything from Biblical scripture and “Hamilton,” and at times echoed the oratory of John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. With urgency and assertion she began by asking “Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?” and used her own poetry and life story as an answer. The poem’s very title, “The Hill We Climb,” suggested both labor and transcendence.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
Of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we’ve found the power
To author a new chapter,
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.”
Among the “Hamilton” inspirations in her poem: “History has its eyes on us,” a variation of the “Hamilton” song “History Has Its Eyes On You.”
Gorman, a native and resident of Los Angeles and the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman told The Associated Press last week that she planned to combine a message of hope for Biden’s inauguration without ignoring “the evidence of discord and division.” She had completed a little more than half of “The Hill We Climb” before Jan. 6 and the siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
“That day gave me a second wave of energy to finish the poem,” Gorman told the AP. She had said that she would not mention Jan. 6 specifically, but her reference was unmistakable:
“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.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.”
Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inaugural was a kind of valedictory — he was 86 and died two years later. Gorman’s career is just beginning. Her first two books come out in September — the picture story “Change Things” and a bound edition of her inaugural poem, along with other works. Ceremonial odes often are quickly forgotten, but Angelou’s “On the Pulse Of the Morning,” which she read at the 1993 inaugural of President Clinton, went on to sell more than 1 million copies as a book.
Invited to the inaugural late last month by first lady Jill Biden, Gorman has read at official occasions before, including a July 4 celebration when she was backed by the Boston Pops Orchestra. She has also made clear her desire to appear at a future inaugural, in a much greater capacity, an ambition she stated firmly in her poem.
“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.”
She has appeared on MTV; written a tribute to Black athletes for Nike; published her first book, “The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough,” as a teenager, and has a two-book deal with Viking Children’s Books. The first work, the picture book “Change Sings,” comes out later this year.
Gorman was contacted late last month by the Biden inaugural committee. She has known numerous public figures, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former first lady Michelle Obama, but says she is meeting the Bidens for the first time.
In other writings, Gorman has honored her ancestors, acknowledged and reveled in her own vulnerability (“Glorious in my fragmentation,” she has written) and confronted social issues. Her poem “In This Place (An American Lyric),” written for the 2017 inaugural reading of U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, condemns the racist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, ( “tiki torches string a ring of flame”) and holds up her art form as a force for democracy:
“Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it”
Gorman has rare status as a poet and has dreams of other ceremonies. She would love to read at the 2028 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, and in 2037 wouldn’t mind finding herself in an even more special position at the presidential inauguration, as the new chief executive.
“I’m going to tell Biden that I’ll be back,” she said with a laugh.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.