One thing last week’s Inauguration of President Joe Biden will almost certainly be remembered for is the performance of a “skinny little black girl” reciting The Hill We Climb, her poem about hope and the need for change. Amanda Gorman, America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate and a Harvard graduate at only 22, was the youngest poet ever accorded the honour of delivering the Presidential Inaugural poem, a fairly recent practice dating back to John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1961.
What captivated so many was not just the content of her poem which was powerful and remarkable, but the style of her delivery. She spoke with resonance and force, waving her hands and spreading her enthusiastic vision without fear. Even more, she radiated joy, conviction and purpose. Just watching her dream aloud it was hard not to feel hopeful and even optimistic about the future.
The cadence of her spoken word performance brought home to me the sheer power of words when used to good effect. The right words in the right order can change the world, she said in an interview. Well, whatever about changing the world, words have an important part to play in effecting change and what a relief it was after four years of fake news and the sustained abuse of language to hear words being used again for a good and noble purpose.
In an interview with The New York Times, she said that she wanted to use her words to envision a way in which her country could still come together and be healed. And she certainly did that. It was a poem calling for action and change. And, God knows, there is much that needs changing. Listening to her, I was reminded of the power of words as used by other Black writers – most notably James Baldwin – one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century who used his novels and essays to educate people about the truth of the late Susan Sontag’s comment that white is the colour of racism.
I still treasure my copy of his short book, No Name in The Street, which I read back in 1972, and which more than any other book on racism made a lasting impression on me. It has a fair claim to being the best essay ever written on the subject. The title comes from the Book of Job: “His remembrance shall perish from the earth, and he shall have no name in the street” (Job 18: 17-18). Thomas Merton had a high regard for Baldwin’s writings and corresponded with him. I couldn’t help thinking how pleased he and Baldwin would have been to hear this young Black woman declaim such powerful words in such a stirring manner. Not surprisingly, her next two books which haven’t even been published yet, have already gone to the top of Amazon’s hit list!
I know that I shall often return to the video of her performance if only to remind myself of the power of words, to have my spirits lifted and my faith in the human project restored.