Amanda Gorman is as different from Donald Trump as any American can be.
She’s young and Black and smart and funny and self-effacing and beautiful. She was raised by her mother, a middle school teacher, in Los Angeles. She got into Harvard honestly and graduated the same way.
Her star is rising faster than Trump’s is falling. First of all, she has a Twitter fanbase she can tweet to. Then yesterday, she added a million new followers to it. Her two books of poetry, The Hill We Climb, and Change Sings, won’t be published until September. Yet today, they’re Number 1 and 2 on the Amazon Best-Seller list.
Her career of choice leaving Harvard was to be a poet. You know you’re not doing that for the money when the highest-paid poet in America, the Poet Laureate of the United States, is paid $35,000 a year. Amanda Gorman, at 22, is just the National Youth Poet Laureate.
As for her performance at Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, a friend e-mailed me rapturously afterwards to say: “Her words, her delivery, her sentiment, her face.”
But suddenly, Amanda Gorman’s five-minute poem, The Hill We Climb, is being analysed like a major policy paper for our dreams of tomorrow. Masha Gessen called it “a stunning vision of democracy” in the New Yorker. And strong men like Anderson Cooper nearly wept.
Cooper also dug into Gorman’s suddenly public life and found something the media had treated the way they described her attire on Wednesday. That yellow jacket and red headband? Prada. The wild ring of a caged bird on her right hand? A gift from Oprah as a tribute to another African-American poet, Maya Angelou.
Cooper first asked her about her love not so much of images, but of the rhythm of the text. Her reply speaks to a deep understanding of the marvellous power of words, and their corrupting power as well:
“We’ve seen over the past few years the ways in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated,” she said. “What I wanted to do was reclaim poetry as that site where we can re-purify and re-sanctify, not only the Capitol Building which we saw violated, but the power of words …and to invest that in the highest office of the land.”
Then Cooper asked her about her speech impediment.
Amanda Gorman has a speech impediment?
Indeed, she does. Just as Joe Biden did, a debilitating stutter, which still taps him on the shoulder today. Just as Maya Angelou did. She suffered from selective mutism brought on by severe child anxiety. Yet she read her own poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Said Anderson Cooper: “I had a slight little stutter as a child. ….I understand you use writing to cope with it and share your voice that way.”
Amanda Gorman replied: “I’m proud to be in the speech difficulty club with you and President Biden and Maya Angelou.”
“Growing up I had a speech impediment. It wasn’t a stutter. It was dropping a whole swath of letters in the alphabet. So for most of my life, up until two or three years ago, I couldn’t say the letter “R”. Even to this day, I struggle with it. So I used writing as a form of self-expression to get my voice onto a page. The more I recited aloud, the more I practiced the spoken word, the more I was able to recite these out loud, the more I was able to teach these letters which had been for so long my greatest impediment.”
When I heard her say that, I almost wept as well. Not just in admiration. But because, as a young teen, I, too, had a speech impediment. My stammer was so pronounced that, tripping over the letter “D”, I would call my dad “Father” instead, which skewed a lot of things and buried even more.
I overcame my stammer by volunteering to read the daily lesson from the Bible at my school chapel in front of all the students and teachers. It was a ‘lean-into-your-fears’ strategy that I would not recommend to anyone. But I can, in the nearly 50 years that separates me from her, glimpse into the pain that drives this calm and powerful young woman.
But Amanda Gorman calls on something that no white man can claim.
“I say something before every reading I give.”
“‘”I am the daughter of Black writers. We are descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.’”
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