Amanda Gorman: Youth Poet Laureate and Activist
Updated: Feb 23
At the age of twenty-four, Amanda Gorman has the awareness and wisdom of a woman three times her age. Born in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1998, her single mother raised her and her two siblings to value education and perseverance. A speech impediment required years of physical therapy and exercises and an auditory processing disorder still leaves Gorman hypersensitive to noise. Yet Gorman credits her disabilities with helping her discover her strengths.
Having an English teacher for a mother meant Gorman was encouraged to spend much of her childhood reading and writing. In addition to spending long hours singing and speaking to improve her ability to annunciate, Gorman discovered writing as a way to communicate without tripping over the spoken word. As she told Michelle Obama in a 2021 interview for Time Magazine, “I could not say certain sounds, like r, so I would be saying things like poetwee or dolla. My last name is Gorman, and I could not say that really until three years ago. For a long time, I looked at it as a weakness. Now I really look at it as a strength because going through that process, it made me a writer, for one, because I had to find a form in which I could communicate other than through my mouth, and two, when I was brave enough to try to take those words from the page onto the stage, I brought with me this understanding of the complexity of sound, pronunciation, emphasis.”
To help her find a way out of Watts, Gorman’s mother enrolled her in a private K-12 school. The work ethic that enabled her to overcome her speech disability flowed over to other areas of her life. She says that as a child, she was inspired by the Marianne Deborah Williamson quote that 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.' She seems to have always leaned into the challenge to be her greatest self. As a high school sophomore, she was inspired to become a U.N. youth delegate after hearing a speech by Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2013. The following year, she was chosen as the first youth poet laureate of Los Angles and in 2015, her first book of poetry, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, was published. In her senior year, she earned a scholarship to Harvard. There, she received her bachelor’s degree in sociology, graduating cum laude in 2020 as a member of the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.
While a freshman at Harvard, Gorman opened the literary season at the Library of Congress with a reading of her poetry. She also performed her poetry on MTV. As she accumulated awards, titles and media coverage, she caught the attention of Dr. Jill Biden, who recommended her as the poet for President Biden’s inauguration. Her performance and words mesmerized the world.
Fame gave her a larger platform and Gorman has continued to write and advocate. She was commissioned to write and perform “Chorus of the Captains” at Super Bowl LV in 2021, celebrating the the essential workers in the pandemic. She is outspoken on civil rights, women’s rights, oppression and marginalization. She’s already declared her intention to run for President when she’s eligible in 2036.
When asked by Michelle Obama how she was coping with the pressures of her elevated celebrity, Gorman replied, “There have been times where to speak I’ve taken the train, had to do my makeup and hair in a Starbucks, walked myself to the venue, and then I’m performing in front of 1,000 people. When you’re first rocketed into a type of visibility, you’re trying to represent your best self without having the best resources. For Black women, there’s also the politics of respectability—despite our best attempts, we are criticized for never being put-together enough; but when we do, we’re too showy. We’re always walking this really tentative line of who we are and what the public sees us as. I’m handling it day by day. I’m learning that “No” is a complete sentence. And I am reminding myself that this isn’t a competition. It’s me following the trajectory of the life I was meant to lead.”
Elsewhere in the interview, she shares that she feels a deep sense of responsibility to honor those who came before her and fought to make the country a better place. She explains, “My mantra is: “I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” I say that to remind myself of ancestors that are all around me whenever I’m performing.”
She then expands on the role she can play in making her own contributions, adding “We have seen the ways in which language has been violated and used to dehumanize. How can I reclaim English so we can see it as a source of hope, purification and consciousness?”
Amanda Gorman seems to know she has only just started to leave her mark on the world. She calls us to leave our own marks with our own skills. Below is the full text of her inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” reminding us that “there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.“
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 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 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 our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gaze, 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.
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.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, 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 at 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 could 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, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.
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.
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 sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons 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.
To learn more about Amanda Gorman, we recommend Time Magazine’s interview and Biography’s profile of Amanda Gorman