born March 7, 1998 in Los Angeles
25. birthday on March 7, 2023
Amanda Gorman stepped up to the microphone in a canary-yellow coat, with a piled high Afro hairstyle and a red hairband. It was January 20th, 2021 in Washington and cold that day in the American capital. The sun came and went during the inauguration of the new president, Joe Biden. The 22-year old Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb”. The poem - performed gracefully with sweeping gestures as if she were conducting an orchestra of one, in the rhythmic tradition of rap and slam poetry - and the pictures of the young black woman, both went halfway around the world and enchanted millions.
“The Hill We Climb” addressed the painful rift through Amanda Gorman’s country and its communal healing.
The Capitol sits on top of a rise called simply the Hill, where the United States Congress meets. The storming, invasion and breaching of the center of American democracy on January 6th, 2021, two weeks before the inauguration, became emblematic of a country that has been deeply divided and battered since the Trump era.
About 800 rioters, mostly men, entered the Capitol to interrupt the joint sessions of both parliamentary chambers to prevent the ongoing counting of the electoral college votes. Offices were occupied, vandalized and looted. Feces and urin were left in corners and niches. Fear was rampant. Many lawmakers barricaded themselves. The understaffed Capitol Police were assaulted. Five people died.
Amanda Gorman wrote her poem in the pandemic solitude of Los Angeles while these tumultuous images raged on tv screens nationwide.
In a podcast with Hillary Clinton, Amanda Gorman recalls ”In early January, I was working on my poem at a snail’s pace. And then the uprising happened at the Capitol. I knew immediately that the theme of the inauguration had to be unity. But as a poet, I felt a responsibility to ask the question: unity, why and what for? It was something the country and the world desperately needed to hear. It was a moment of new sanctification, of the new dedication of the Capitol, but also of democracy.”
In “The Hill we Climb” activist Amanda Gorman fuses the political with the personal. She imagined, she said
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.
Amanda Gorman had already had an early and steep rise as a poet when she recited on the steps of the Capitol. At 16 she became the poet prize winner of the city of Los Angeles and at 19 the first National Youth Poet Laureate of the USA. Jill Biden, the wife of the next president of the United States, knew Gorman’s work and persuaded the inauguration committee to invite the young poet.
Amanda Gorman grew up in the multicultural city of Los Angeles. Her mother, Joan Wicks, a single parent, is a teacher in the Watts neighborhood, a low income, high crime area. But Amanda Gorman lived with her mother and twin sister Gabrielle in the middle class suburb of Westchester. Gorman attended a progressive private school in affluent Santa Monica.
The back and forth between the very different neighborhoods shaped Gorman’s knowledge of inequality in society.
The graduate from the elite Harvard University majored in sociology and had been raising her political voice publicly for some time: on racism and police brutality, on the ban on abortion and on the imprisonment of refugee children on the border to Mexico.
After Amanda Gorman heard the speech of the then 17 year-old peace activist, fighter for girls’ rights and later Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations in 2013, the poet decided to become a youth delegate to the UN. In 2017 she recited her poem “The Gathering Place” at the UN Social Good Summit.
The self-confident appearance in Washington gave the impression that this extraordinary young woman had always been so self-assured. But Amanda Gorman had to learn to overcome a speech defect.
Long before she became a much-praised poet and style icon - after her brilliant performance, Amanda Gorman appeared on the cover ot the renowned fashion magazine Vogue in May 2021 - she was diagnosed at the age of five with a processing disorder in her hearing, which resulted in a speech disorder.
For years, Gorman worked on pronouncing certain sounds, such as r. It takes a long time until she can say “poetry” and not “poetwy”. Speech therapy helps with this. And practice, practice, practice. Even at he age of 20, she still found it difficult to pronounce her last name correctly.
“Twins have their own language,” Gorman says in the podcast with Hillary Clinton. “My twin sister was often my translator, as if I were a foreign dignitary. For example ’She wants a sandwich but not so much peanut butter on it’ “.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gorman says she doesn’t see her speech impediment as a weakness at all because “it made me the artist and storyteller I aspired to. If you have to teach yourself to pronounce sounds, if you have to concentrate entirely on pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sound, and also the auditory experience.”
On February 4, 2021 the cover and lead story of Time Magazine is a conversation between Michelle Obama und Amanda Gorman. The former First Lady and the young poet share their experience and views on what it means to be black and female in American society.
Gorman says, “to perform publicly as a black girl is intimidating, with my dark skin, hair and race, as a type of person who hasn’t been welcomed or celebrated in public. And then there’s the person with a speech disorder that exacerbated my impostor syndrome because I’m worried, is what I have to say good enough? And the added fear, is the way I speak good enough?”
In an interview on Today, NBC’s morning magazine on September 21, 2021, Gorman explains why she plans to run for the highest office in the United States in 2036. Then she will have reached the age of 35 required by the American Constitution to run for President.
“I remember I was 11 years old and I was in school talking passionately to my class about how I wanted to change the world. My teacher jokingly said ,’Ha ha, you should run for President.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I should.’ “
Author: Lila Hess
Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, called her a “powerhouse” and has joked that her “bio goes out of date every two weeks.”
Literature & Sources
Gorman, Amanda. 2021. Call Us What We Carry: Poems. New York NY. Viking.
Gorman, Amanda. 2021. The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country. Foreword by Oprah Winfrey. Viking Books. New York City.
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