Inauguration Day saw the swearing in of a new president and vice president, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris weren’t the only ones to step onto the West Front of the U.S. Capitol and step into the spotlight on Jan. 20.
A 22-year-old poet — the youngest inaugural poet ever — also made her presence known and her voice heard that day, and now Amanda Gorman has something to say about her historic reading and how it fits into “the current renaissance in Black art.”
That’s how Michelle Obama referenced this time of resurgence and recognition of Black art in popular culture when she sat down with Gorman for a recent remote interview.
“We’re living in an important moment in Black art because we’re living in an important moment in Black life,” Gorman responded. “Whether that’s looking at what it means politically to have an African American president before Trump, or looking at what it means to have the Black Lives movement become the largest social movement in the United States.”
She’s thrilled to be a part of this unprecedented time and to share the world stage with so many other great talents.
“What’s been exciting for me is I get to absorb and to live in that creation I see from other African American artists that I look up to,” she raved. “But then I also get to create art and participate in that historical record. We’re seeing it in fashion, we’re seeing it in the visual arts. We’re seeing it in dance, we’re seeing it in music. In all the forms of expression of human life, we’re seeing that artistry be informed by the Black experience. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that.”
And it’s hard to imagine her not being a part of that exciting movement.
Gorman, who was named the country's first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, was both poised and passionate when she recited her work “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration.
“Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished,” she read. “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.”
Obama, 57, noted in the interview that Gorman repeated a mantra to herself before that reading and other performances in order to help bolster her confidence. She asked her to share it.
“This mantra I’m about to say is actually in part inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics in ‘Moana’ in the song ‘Song of the Ancestors,’” Gorman explained. “Whenever I listen to songs, I rewrite them in my head. That song goes: ‘I’m the daughter of the village chief. We’re descended from voyagers who made the way across the world.’ Something like that. Sorry, Lin. I really wanted something that I could repeat because I get so terrified whenever I perform.”
Her twist on those lyrics from the Disney film is this: “I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”
Gorman added that it serves as a reminder that her ancestors “are all around” her as she performs. But Obama reminded her that there’s another generation coming up behind her to think of, too.
“Do you have any advice for young girls, and Black girls in particular, who earn their way into the spotlight?” she asked.
“My question is do they have any advice for me,” Gorman said. “I’m new to this, so I’m still learning. I would say anyone who finds themselves suddenly visible and suddenly famous, think about the big picture. Especially for girls of color, we’re treated as lightning or gold in the pan — we’re not treated as things that are going to last. You really have to crown yourself with the belief that what I’m about and what I’m here for is way beyond this moment.”
To which she added, “I’m learning that I am not lightning that strikes once. I am the hurricane that comes every single year, and you can expect to see me again soon.”