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As the nation inaugurated Joe Biden as the 46th president and Kamala Harris as the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president, it was Amanda Gorman who became a breakout star Wednesday with her poetic justice.
In her powerful poem, the Californian drew in the Washington, D.C., crowd and captivated millions of TV viewers with her symbolic call for peace, love and unity as America strives for reconciliation as a country.
“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,” Gorman recited in her work, “The Hill We Climb.”
At just 22 years old, Gorman became the youngest of history’s six inaugural poets, following the footsteps of literary giants such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. Her original poem received instant praise from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among many others.
Interviewed on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” on Wednesday night, the poet and activist said she is “so grateful and so humbled.”
“I came here to do the best with the poem that I could and to just see the support that has been pouring out, I literally can’t exhort it all so I will be processing it for a while,” Gorman told Cooper.
‘Over the top with pride’
The Los Angeles poet and activist — who was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and graduated from Harvard last year with a degree in sociology — comes from a family of strong Black women who are confident when expressing themselves, according to her grandmother, Bertha Gorman.
“It’s been a very emotional day because of that, just watching it was quite emotional,” Gorman said Wednesday. “I’m absolutely just over the top with pride. It’s wonderful to see, one, what she loves and something that she does so very well. It’s quite wonderful. I’m proud, my family is proud.”
The elder Gorman is a Sacramento resident and worked as a journalist for The Sacramento Bee from 1971 to 1978, as one of the only Black reporters in the newsroom at the time, before she went on to work at the California State Assembly.
She talked about her granddaughter and how she evolved into a spellbinding poet — crediting the family’s emphasis on reading and books as foundations of her literary prowess. Gorman says her granddaughter started writing as early as 3 years old.
“She’s had good role models there and also the value of working to what she wants,” Gorman said. “Education was very valued. Understanding that you have to stand up for yourself you have to be strong and where you’re given an opportunity you take it.”
Gorman ‘very creative’ as a child
Like Brayden Harrington, who spoke during the “Celebrating America” primetime special Wednesday night, Amanda Gorman said she grew up with a speech impediment.
Writing helped Gorman break free from her impediment, she said, and onto the grand stage.
“I used writing as a form of self expression to get my voice on the page and also metamorphasize into its own speech pathology, so that the more I recite it out loud (and) the more I practice spoken word and that tradition, the more i was able to teach myself how to pronounce these letters which for so long had been my greatest impediment,” she said Wednesday night.
The elder Gorman recalled the innovative minds of the poet and her other grandchildren during their visits to Sacramento.
“When they would come for the summer or visit for vacations, that was our entertainment. They would write. They would make a play and they would perform them,” Bertha Gorman said. “It’s just part of what we did. The kids were very creative. Amanda and her sister (twin Gabrielle), her brother and her cousins were all very creative kids.”
Gorman’s phone was buzzing all day long, she said, with call after call when everyone recognized her granddaughter delivering words of encouragement to the country.
“I’ve received so many emails, telephone calls, texts and all of those things from people who have seen her grow and wish her well,” she said.
A poem the ‘country needed to hear’
Amanda Gorman said she found out in late December she would be the poet for the inauguration. She researched previous inaugural poems and watched and read speeches from leaders in divided countries.
But when the insurrection on the Capitol occurred Jan. 6, she adjusted her poem to further reflect the country.
“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, unity and healing,” she told Cooper. “I felt that was the type of poem I needed to write and the type of poem the nation and country needed to hear.”
The transcript of Gorman’s poem can be found here.
Bertha Gorman said along with her mother and father, the 22-year-old’s influences included Angelou, described as the younger’s “poetic hero” and Toni Morrison.
Gorman also placed importance in the role grandparents play in children’s lives. Most parents, she said, can relate to her feelings with two-parent households and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — it’s no easy job.
“The relationship between grandparents and children is a critical relationship,” Gorman said. “We’ve raised our children, we’ve made our mistakes. When we get our grandchildren we have a better idea of what we would like to see, what we would like to do for them, and how we can interact with them.”
“The Hill We Climb,” a collection of Gorman’s poetry to be published by Viking in September was already No. 1 in Amazon sales on Thursday morning. In the second spot was her book “Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem.”
Gorman said she hopes poetry and the power of words can bring a positive change.
“Words matter and I think that’s kind of what made this inauguration so much more sentimental and special,” she said. “We have seen over the past few years the way in which the power of words has been violated and misappropriated. What i wanted to do was to reclaim poetry as that site in which we can re-purify, re-sanctify.”
McClatchy’s Mike Stunson contributed to this story.