9 American greats Amanda Gorman referenced in her poem performed during Joe Biden's inauguration, from Maya Angelou to Barack Obama

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Allana Akhtar
·6 min read
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Amanda Gorman
American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 20, 2021. Patrick Semansky / POOL / AFP
  • Amanda Gorman paid homage to many American greats in her inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb."

  • Gorman references the work of Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, and more.

  • The 22-year-old poet preformed her poem at Joe Biden's presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Students and historians will study Amanda Gorman's inaugural poem "The Hill We Climb" following her breathtaking performance at the 2021 presidential inauguration.

Gorman, a 22-year-old and the nation's first youth poet laureate, read her work after the swearing in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Read more: Meet 14 Joe Biden family members who could be powerful surrogates - or potential headaches - for the new Democratic president's administration

In her six-minute performance, Gorman alluded to the works of great American writers and speakers like Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Abraham Lincoln.

The poet told NPR she deeply researched her work by reading American literature and studying performances by other poet laureates.

"I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle, a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage at inauguration," Gorman said. "So it's really special for me."

Here are nine references Gorman's poem made to iconic American literature.

Gorman alluded to fellow inaugural poet Maya Angelou's poem, 'Still I Rise.'

American poet Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton
American poet Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Consolidated News Pictures/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gorman referenced the Angelou poem "Still I Rise," about the poet overcoming prejudice as a Black woman, when she said: "We will rise through 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."

Angelou, a Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, preformed her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration. Gorman told Vogue she studied Angelou's work to prepare for her reading.

Famous lines from Martin Luther King Jr.'s address during the 1963 March on Washington appeared in the poem.

Martin Luther King Jr
CBS Television Network presents the interview program Washington Conversation with CBS News Correspondent Paul Niven and Reverend Martin Luther King (pictured). Image dated May 20, 1962. Washington, DC. CBS via Getty Images

Gorman referenced lines from King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech when she said: "We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man."

King famously said during his speech, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Gorman nodded to Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln. Mathew B. Brady:The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1863, Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in part to inspire soldiers fighting the civil war by saying, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."

Gorman nodded to Lincoln's "unfinished work" in her line: "Somehow we do it, somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken but simply unfinished."

Gorman references two iconic Langston Hughes poems in a single line.

Langston Hughes in 1936

Toward the end of her poem, Gorman said: "In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful."

The last three words pay homage to two iconic works — "I, Too" and "Still Here" — by fellow poet Langston Hughes.

Hughes begins "Still Here" with, "I've been scared and battered. My hopes the wind done scattered." The poet ends "I, Too" with, "They'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed — I, too, am America."

Gorman referenced a phrase used frequently by George Washington.

George Washington portrait
In addition to being the first American president, George Washington was also the commander of the Continental Army, president of the Constitutional Convention, a fervent writer, and gardener. John Parrot/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

George Washington used the biblical phrase "under their vine and fig tree" numerous times in correspondence, according to historian George Tsakiridis.

Gorman references this phrase when she said, "Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid."

Gorman references Barack Obama's campaign slogan "change we can believe in."

Barack Obama Joe Biden Michelle Obama Jill Biden
Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden wave after Barack's acceptance speech in November 2018. AP Photo/Morry Gash

Gorman said, "If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children's birthright."

The nod to "change" brings back Obama's 2008 campaign slogan and acceptance address line, "change has come to America."

Gorman seemed to reference a famous saying from abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

frederick douglass
Frederick Douglass. Historical / Contributor / Getty Images

When Gorman said, "Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it's the past we step into and how we repair it," she may have been referring to a famous saying by Douglass: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

The poet said she studied Douglass's work prior to her address.

Gorman nodded to Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner's work, "Intruder In the Dust."

William Faulkner
William Faulkner. AP

In "Intruder in the Dust," Faulkner's 1948 book that explores Jim Crow's effect on the American South, the author said Americans love nothing but their automobile, which they spend Sunday "polishing and waxing" and renews each year in "pristine virginity."

Gorman seemed to reference this work when she said, "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."

The title of her poem references the sermon of English settler John Winthrop.

john winthrop
John Winthrop. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Gorman's poem title, "The Hill We Climb," seemed to call out the description Winthrop gave New England: a "city upon a hill" that would set an example for the rest of the world.

BONUS: Gorman made two references to Lin Manuel-Miranda's award-winning play, 'Hamilton.'

Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin Manuel-Miranda. Theo Wargo/Getty

Gorman said on Twitter she made two references to the Tony Award winning musical, "Hamilton."

The first, "for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us," alludes to the song, "History Has Its Eyes on You."

The second is in reference to Washington's saying, "under their vine and fig tree," which the character in "Hamilton" also called to in the play.

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