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Amanda Gorman

and the Hill she climbs

Amanda Gorman ’20, the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, is pictured in Harvard Yard at Harvard University. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

The inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th President of the USA was obviously one of the most anticipated events this year. After the violent storming of the Capitol in Washington D.C. in January by former president Donald Trump’s supporters, the sight of Biden at the swearing-in ceremony was nothing less than a ray of hope for America. But it was a “little, skinny black girl”, Amanda Gorman, who stole the show and the hearts of millions around the world when she stepped onto the podium to recite “The Hill We Climb”.

The 710-word poem, written by Gorman herself, could not have come at a better time when Americans are more divided than ever, gridlocked over social issues, race, gender and the economy. An up-close and personal look at Gorman’s life explains why she was handpicked by the president’s wife, Dr Jill Biden, to be the inaugural poet for the historic event.

Before January 20, the world knew very little about Gorman except that America was going to have the youngest inaugural poet in its history. At 22, Gorman already has a long list of impressive achievements, including the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, and the position as the youngest board member of 826 National, the largest youth writing network in the USA. In 2017, Urban Word and the Library of Congress named her the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate in the USA.

In May last year, the young award-winning writer became a cum laude graduate of Harvard University in Sociology with a 3.98 GPA, winner of the Detur Book Prize (one of the oldest prizes at Harvard College), a Booth Fellowship, and two John Harvard Scholar awards for her outstanding grades. All of these were achieved while she juggled with her classes, exams, and responsibilities as a poet laureate.

For a girl who calls herself a “skinny, black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” with an auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment during childhood, her life’s journey is already remarkable.

Gorman saw the auditory and speech problem as a contributing factor in her writing and reading prowess. “I always saw it as a strength because, since I was experiencing these obstacles in terms of my auditory and vocal skills, I became really good at reading and writing,” she told the Harvard Gazette. For her, the disability has “made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be.”

In her interview with Good Morning America, Gorman said she would not have been able to deliver the poetry the way she had been asked a few years ago. “It was dropping several letters that I just could not say for several years, most specifically the ‘r’ sound. It would take until probably I was 20 to say, meaning that I couldn’t say words like poetry or even Gorman, which is my last name, of course. I had to really work at it and practice to get to where I am today.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Gorman lived with her single mom, Joan Wicks, twin sister Gabrielle, and brother. Having a mother as a sixth-grade English teacher in an inner-city public school has shown her how crucial education shapes a child’s life. “I realized that education can really be a life-or-death resource…school and college is a pathway to get off the streets, to break a cycle,” Gorman recalled, adding that her everyday inspiration came from seeing her mother work hard to give the best to her three children, while pursuing her doctorate and master’s degrees in Education.

It is also her mother who ignited her interest in social issues. Gorman told The Washington Post that her first political conversation was with her mother. The topics were about the reality of racial inequality in the USA, and how its deep-rootedness has crippled black people in various spheres of society. That was the moment when she felt like an “an outsider” for “living at the intersection of all Los Angeles communities,” she explained.

Studying at Harvard further increased her learning curve exponentially. As she befriended different people who were the ‘cream of the crop’ in their own fields, she began pondering about her life’s purpose. The young poet and activist finally realized that her passion, apart from poetry which was been with her since she was little, lay in social oppression, feminism, race, and marginalization. These topics were the center of her art and activism during 2014-2015.

In her interview with Black Enterprise during her freshman year, Gorman said such encounters made her think about how she could contribute to society and academia. “How do I belong here? How do I fit in? What do I provide?”

It was perhaps the catalyst that cemented her intention to run for the USA presidency in 2036, the year when she will be old enough to apply. Meanwhile, she will be busy writing more poems and books while running her foundation.

In 2015, Gorman published her first collection of poetry, entitled The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, and founded One Pen One Page, a non-profit organization the year after. The foundation, inspired by her first-hand experience of the power of knowledge, aims to promote literacy through free creative writing programs for underprivileged children to give them a voice in the society and make positive change.

In the next few months, Gorman will soon make her mark in the fashion industry after having made history in the poetry and activism circles. She has just signed a contract with IMG Models, one of the biggest modelling agencies. For Amanda, this will provide a great platform to convey her messages on social issues.

Her grandmother, Bertha Gorman, said she always knew that her granddaughter would make it far in life. “I knew that she could do it; I was just filled with pride for my family.”

So is the world, for the president-hopeful whose vision for the hill she climbs is met with smiles of greetings and helping hands.