Gorman demonstrated in “The Hill We Climb” that she is uniquely skilled at using language that speaks to two audiences simultaneously: those who want to fight for true abolition and those who want to whitewash America’s ongoing enslavement of Black citizens.
Hopefully everyone had a chance to watch or listen to at least some of the 2021 US Presidential inauguration where not one but TWO Black women took the stage to speak.
One of these women was our new VP Kamala Harris and the other was Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman who delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” to smashing fucking success. White folks loved it. Black folks loved it. Multiracial folks loved it. Trump probably hated it. All hail Amanda Gorman who has now made history as the youngest-ever inaugural poet.
The only person who seemed not to like it was irish critic Melanie McDonagh of The Spectator–more on her later–aaaannnnndddddd me.
I know. But don’t worry it gets better.
My response was sort of menh. After all, they didn’t give her much to work with. The inauguration theme was unity and Gorman gave us a poem about unity. She did the best she could; this isn’t Def Poetry Jam.
But I’m a cliche critic. That’s what I notice. And at a presidential election whose theme is unity and who is terrified of alienating what’s left of the political moderates, I did not have high hopes.
In fact, I sat down to write this episode as an analysis of how cliche Gorman’s poem was. Not, to be clear, because I have an axe to grind. She’s half my age with half my privilege and I have a podcast with a hundred listeners and she has a bestselling book on Amazon that won’t even be published until September. Much respect all around. I only wanted to analyze the poem because that’s my duty to all of you. I call bullshit on the cliches. I can’t help it. It’s in my blood. I’m like the truffle pig of cliches. I was bred to sniff out platitudes.
So I set to work analyzing the poem.
And, as it turns out, this is a poem that needs and deserves a very careful read and I feel ashamed about my initial dismissal and grateful I came to my senses. I had a similar experience with Beyonce’s “Formation” video, which gets the business in my upcoming book. The more I read and listened, the more awesome shit I found.
So I’m asking your forgiveness and promise I am going to make up for my dismissal of Gorman by giving it the proper what for over the next twenty minutes.
But first understand where I’m coming from. I spend my life being utterly and totally disappointed by speeches. I mean, I love speeches like most people love music. And even better than prose speeches are poetic speeches. Jesse Williams’ 2016 BET Acceptance Speech blew my mind.
But Williams is the exception that proves the rule. Most speeches, even the famous ones, are hot trash cans. There aren’t 10 speeches on American Rhetoric’s Top 100 list of Best Speeches that I would ever listen to again voluntarily let alone take the time to analyze closely. So I tend to go into speeches these days with kind of a chip on my shoulder. I know that is terrible for someone who is supposed to be, like, a culturally astute educated person. But we all have our filters.
Also, I had originally tuned into Gorman’s poem just a touch too late. I missed the first stanza, and came in at the second.
Let me play that second stanza for you now.
And yet the dawn is ours/before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.Gorman, The Hill We Climb
You gotta admit that shit is pretty boring. It was about what I expected and as tends to happen when something is pretty much what we thought it was going to be, I tuned out a little bit.
But when I sat down to analyze what I thought was going to be mostly more of that, it turns out, this poem is radical. And, more importantly, NOBODY ELSE HAS NOTICED IT.
Mainstream–which also means almost always white and liberal leaning–critics have done two things, largely, with Gorman’s poem. The first is praise it, essentially, for delivering the cliche vision of a post-racial American future that white liberals love to celebrate as if it’s, you know, basically almost done. That is called whitewashing,
But among the whitewashers and sycophants are a few sharper-eyed critics like ol’ Melanie McDonagh of The Spectator who wrote a piece titled, “Amanda Gorman was let down by a terrible poem.” So, I’m reading over McDonagh’s critique, interested to see her reasoning, and I come across this passage:
Amanda was given the theme of America United. The Hill We Climb is the result. Without pretending to be in the FR and Queenie Leavis league when it comes to literary sensibility, I couldn’t make sense of it. I mean, I got bits of it, I got the sentiment, I got the stream of consciousness, the emotion, I got the sub-Martin Luther King flow. But trying to make the whole thing cohere, structurally and grammatically–and in terms of sense–was another matter.McDonagh, The Spectator
Now I don’t know what “FR and Queenie Leavis league” means but I do know that yoking Gorman to MLK is just lazy and transparently stereotypical. Their flow isn’t even close to the same. Gorman speaks like a millennial poet and Dr. King speaks like a turn of the century preacher with some doo-wop swagger. You couldn’t think of any other poet? Not Angela Davis or Audre Lorde or even Maya Angelou, who actually delivered a poem at the 1993 inauguration? I mean, still not correct but at least would have demonstrated some effort to know, well, like, one other Black speaker besides MLK.
McDonagh then goes on to critique the FIRST stanza of the poem–the stanza that I had originally missed. First I’ll play you Gorman, then read you McDonagh’s read. So this is the first bit that comes before the “nation unfinished” bit.
When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always just-ice.Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
About the first two lines, never-ending shade and sea we must wade, McDonagh writes:
How does ‘the loss we carry. A sea we must wade’ follow from the first line about finding light, unless it’s simply to make ‘wade’ rhyme with ‘shade’?)
Then, about the line “We braved the belly of the beast” McDonagh just writes:
So I’m reading McDonagh’s critique and I’m listening to the lines again and I realize: the “we” here is NOT the “we” of The Constitution’s “we the people.” It’s not “we” the way Biden’s inauguration meant “we.”
That’s why McDonagh doesn’t get it. Because she’s not IN the we. And I’m not either. I’m just fortunate to spend a lot of time reading brilliant Black women who write about brilliant shit.
Think about it. Finding light. Never-ending shade. Carrying loss. Wading a sea. The belly of the beast…
What are those metaphors? Where have you heard them, or perhaps more likely NOT hear them before?
It’s the middle passage. As in, the colonizing human trafficking ring that ran through the Atlantic and stole millions of enslaved Africans to build precisely the “we” that IS meant by The Constitution.
The imagery is unmistakable: Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon, Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, Manu Herbstein’s Ama, I believe Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, though I haven’t read it in a long time.
Right in the middle of this poem that seems to be praising the unity of a colonizer country who hasn’t REALLY come close to achieving abolition yet are a radically disrupting set of middle passage metaphors that re-insert slavery into the heart of the American project. If all of this is new to you, I recommend you read Hannah Nikole-Jones’s introduction to the 1619 Project, which I have linked in the show notes and on the blog. Read all of it but look especially for the part that begins, “they say our people were born on the water.”
McDonagh is wrong. Gorman’s poetry makes perfect sense.
Additionally, now that I’ve paid closer attention to the first stanza, the unity cliches in Gorman’s second stanza hit a little different. They’re her speaking in a second register, to a doubled audience of colonizer and colonized. She hits hard with the first stanza and softens things up in the second. It allows her to have two audiences at the same time.
Listen to it again:
And yet the dawn is ours/before we knew it. Somehow we do it. Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Alexandra Alter, critic for the New York Times, writes that Gorman’s poem “spoke of the possibility of unity and reconciliation” and then cites these same four lines. And when I wasn’t paying much attention, that’s about where I wound up.
Except I’m not a fucking New York Times critic.
Going back now, I can see what both Alter and I overlooked: the repetition of “somehow.” “Somehow” we do it, “Somehow” we’ve weathered and witnessed…
If you’re thinking about a generic, which is to say, white, audience, then the word “somehow” is kind of like, “OMG somehow we managed to survive Trump?! And COVID?! Thank god for Instagram, LOL.”
But if you’re thinking middle passage, the stolen people of African and their enslaved descendants and their enslaved-by-other-names descendents, then you think about the word “somehow” in terms of sheer survival, as in “somehow I escaped” or “somehow I kept the heat on when I couldn’t pay my bills.”
Because it is repeated twice at the beginning of the line, “somehow” would be classified in this speech as the rhetorical figure of “anaphora.” Anaphora gets used a lot. In fact, Gorman has used it before:
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Anaphora is a rhetorical device that helps draw attention to the situatedness of the content. When it is used well, it is meant to draw your attention to something being slightly out of place, to you needing to think about how the second word isn’t exactly like the first word isn’t exactly like the third word even though they are, materially, the same word.
Sometimes it’s just lazy. Whenever I tell my students to use a rhetorical device they pick anaphora because then they can just say cheesy shit like, “we must come together. We must win. We must prevail.” The bane of my existence is halftime speeches in sports movies. They always make this move.
That’s lazy anaphora. Gorman’s anaphora is subtle and cutting. Whether she knows it or not–I’m hoping this was all done on purpose but it’s always hard to say–she repeated “we have” twice in order to signal, without explicitly saying, that the “we” is not the generic “we” of “we” the people that gets thrown around. Gorman is speaking to two different but inseparable “wes.” At least two. She’s speaking to the colonizers and she’s speaking to the colonized. “We” are all the we. But “we” are also not all the we.
The repetition of “somehow” doubles down. Because there’s a “somehow” for the white hegemonic “we” of privilege and a different “somehow” for the non-white “we” of oppression. Gorman is, indeed, unifying. We are all part of the we. The “we” who survived gaslighting for four years. The “we” who hope this administration brings some relief. The “we” who have suffered under COVID.
But “we” don’t all suffer equally, do we? There’s a differential distribution of injury. “We” have all been injured, but the distribution of that impact isn’t equal. It separates a “we” into multiple different versions of “we.” There is the “we” who deals with police corruption and shitty treatment. And there is the “we” who can’t see red lights flashing without wondering if they’re going to make it home alive.
“Somehow” is a gap, a challenge, and an impossibility that Gorman presents to an otherwise naïve and giddy vision of the perfected American dream. “Somehow” is a disruption to an easy solution, meant to invite the listener to consider how, exactly, “somehow” comes to pass and how their “somehow” isn’t everyone’s “somehow.”
Then Gorman delivers her third stanza and this is the one that really breaks the bank.
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.Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
Here’s what McDonagh had to say about this passage:
This is a weird sentence. You get the gist, of course. But where does the ‘We’ that begins the line go in search of a verb? If the sentence began with ‘a skinny black girl…can dream of becoming president, only to find herself…” it could sort of work. But following on from the ‘We, the successors…’ it doesn’t. Sorry.McDonagh, The Spectator
I love the addition of “sorry” there. If McDonagh had a better eye for style, it would read “sorry not sorry,” because THAT is what the word “sorry” is actually saying.
McDonagh’s grammar policing entirely misses the point that poetry is meant to violate grammar for the sake of producing new meaning, thank you Gertrude Stein. And I’ll answer the question, “where does the ‘we’ that begins the line go in search of a verb?”
The verb that McDonagh is looking for is the verb your word processor would suggest if you typed out this line. Grammatically, “we” as in the subjects of an English grammar that is always colonizing, want the line to read: “we ARE the successors….”
Or, we want the line to read, “We the successors….ARE” or “SHOULD” or something.
That is what McDonagh means when she asks “but where does the ‘we’ that begins the line go in search of a verb?” How ironic that McDonagh, who personifies language here, can find so much poetic creativity to mock the poem but can’t then flip that poetic creativity to analyze the poem.
But Gorman is not starting a new argument about who “we” are. The point is precisely that “We” IS in search of its verb. Think about it. You’re part of the we. I’m part of the we. We’re the we of the people. We’re the we of the Biden electorate. We’re the we of this new world of equity and reconciliation and anti-racism.
But we’re not also not, are we? Because “we” are still complicit in making apologies for police brutality, or systemic injustice, or privatized prison, or disgusting health disparities between people of color and white people. I’m not shaming you, I’m not better than you, and also not all of you are equally complicit in this “we.”
But on a general level, for the most part, Gorman is standing on a stage, next to Kamala Harris, trying to peddle the feel-good unity that is demanded of her at the moment for good reason and also PAINFULLY aware that it’s also a hot crock pot of simmering bullshit.
So she leaves the “we” in search of it’s verb. Which is a poet’s way of saying: “You love unity? Oh yeah? Then what the fuck are you doing about it?!”
She’s finishing the anaphora she started earlier. She repeated “we’ve” as in “we have” to disequalize the “we,” to disunify the “we” so she could carve out a space to speak to the experience of the descendants of the middle passage who are in one breath told that they are part of the we and then shown everyday that they most certainly are NOT, The we is still in search of its verb.
Alright, so we have covered the first two words of stanza three. Let’s cover the first five words now. Listen to it again.
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.Gorman, ‘The Hill We Climb”
Think about the word “successors.” What are successors? They’re the people who take the place of. A successor is not a descendant, a descendent comes after. Gorman uses both of those words very close to one another to make sure that you know that they are not the same thing.
Kamala Harris is Mike Pence’s successor but I sure as hope she’s not his descendent, as in, of his political lineage, because descendant doesn’t only mean biologically descended from.
Gorman is descended from enslaved people, meaning that she comes after and also carries them with. She doesn’t replace but she isn’t entirely made anew either. That echoes back to the earlier stanza about the middle passage and the collective memory that Gorman and the rest of the descendants of enslaved Africans carry with them.
Now, we’re getting into some thorny territory here. Intergenerational trauma, water memory…there’s no consensus on how any of this stuff works or how it affects people in the present. But let’s just say this: if you think slavery is dead and gone and we’re all just living in the emancipated present, you are sorely mistaken and more than a little in serious denial of how systemic violence work.
So we understand that Gorman is a descendent. That makes sense. But how are “we the successors of a country and time where Gorman is speaking?” How can you be the successor of your own moment?
Well, in your modern cause and effect brain you can’t. Your English grammar brain wants this sentence to say “we are the successors of the legacy of slavery”–that’s what you think she’s saying because that’s how grammar colonizes your sense of logic.
But she’s not saying that. She’s saying “we the successors of this moment are in search of our verb.”
Let me Doc Brown this for a second. We are in the present, right? Where Gorman is spitting lines. And we want this present moment to be distinct from the past where, you know, slavery was. Even those of us who subscribe to modern abolition and the like, there’s still this huge part of us that is like, “well, you know, it’s not exactly the same….”
But I ask you this: who cares? What is even the benefit of drawing the line between past and present? Where does that get you?
It gets you an alibi. Because slavery was really bad and private juvenile-detention-to-prison pipelines that overwhelming incarcerate Black men are, you know, not that.
We’ve got to let go of the separation. I don’t care about the differences. I care about the similarities. And for us to seriously get, on a visceral must-act-now level, as the “we” of “we the people,” that whatever “used” to happen, slavery IS STILL GOING ON, means that distinction between past and present has to get very, very confusing to the point that it isn’t even useful anymore.
I’m not saying erase history and I’m not saying that everything is just the ongoing now and blah blah blah. I’m saying that if you go to the past to talk about “was” then go there because it informs radical anti-racist action in the future. But if you go to the past to start contrasting it to the present because it makes the present more bearable, stop. Stop right there.
Think about it this way: I used to shit my pants. We all did. I don’t shit my pants anymore. But I do procrastinate doing my work and paying my bills. Now, if I go to my past to understand how me being told not to show my shit to the world may be affecting my consciousness about bills now so that I can adult better, great. But if I go back to the past to be like, “well, I don’t shit my pants anymore so shopping online when my bank account is in the red is definitely an improvement,” stop. Stop right there.
But Gorman can’t do all of that. She can’t do it on the occasion and she can’t do it in her genre. So she does something just as good if not better: she uses poetry to mess with your sense of time. You the successor of this moment. Where is your verb? How are you the successor of yourself now?
And then Gorman drops the best line of the piece: “only to find herself reciting for one.”
Read it again:
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.Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
The word “only” kind of just slips in there like some shade. As in, “oh, you only got me blah blah for my birthday? “Only” is a division between the verb “dream,” as in the American dream, the fantasy, the aspiration and the verb “reciting,” as in rote learning, obedience, formality, and lack of deviation.
Gorman’s line about reciting for the president is not a vision of unity or harmony or healing. It is a cutting commentary on the gap that still exists, in our language and our systems, between the feel-good notion of upward mobility for Black women and their reality as bound subjects of power.
Black women remain subjects who must recite power to have any power even though the power of the reciter is never the power of the subject who originates the lines to be recited.
Gorman’s lines remind us that the Black(ened) body, as Zakiyyah Imam Jackson has termed it, is so saturated by systemic racism and anti-Black violence that no amount of fame or fortune modulates markers of disease and illness.
Another Black woman poet, Audre Lorde, testifies in The Cancer Journals about the myth of upward mobility for Black women. Reflecting on her breast cancer diagnosis, the iconic figure remarks with neither irony nor surprise that none of her successes could improve the so-called “health markers” that the medical field, another institution of systemic racism, thrusts upon her.
Mainstream critics love to praise Lorde as a great (Black, woman) poet.
But they don’t mention that Lorde died at the tender age of 58 from terminal breast cancer and that her odds of survival would have dramatically improved had she been white.
Speaking of critics who love to praise Black women poets but manage to completely not listen to what they’re saying, let’s finish our tour of whitewashing with Dwight Garner of the “Critic’s Notebook” from the New York Times.
First, Garner remarks, “It hardly matters that “The Hill We Climb” is not an eternal work of art […] In cadences that fell somewhere between those of Lauryn Hill and Angelou herself, Gorman rose to meet a moment.”
“It hardly matters that “The Hill We Climb” is not an eternal work of art” is an obnoxious way of saying, “this poem wasn’t that good because it was nice in the moment.” That is a pretty vapid argument for a person with a New York Times column called “The Critic’s Notebook.” But at least this guy knows who Lauryn Hill and Maya Angelou are. Still a weak comparison, but better than just pulling out Dr. King.
Garner then goes on to write:
After four years during which language was debased — when it meant anything at all — Gorman offered a fortifying tablespoon of American plain-spokenness. She offered lucidity and euphony. Her hand motions were expressive, as if she were conducting an orchestra of one.Garner, ‘The Critics Notebook’ (NYT)
Dwight, dude, are we even reading the same poem? “Fortifying tablespoon of American plain-spokenness?” Maybe Black American double-spokenness. And lucidity? I think by that he means “clarity” which is one definition of the word. It also doesn’t apply here.
If you mean lucid as in bright as in shining a bright light on the double standard of the American dream without triggering backlash from swaths of white America, Gorman is as lucid as they come. But I don’t think that’s what he means either.
And “orchestra of one” very much misses the split “we the people” that resounds in this poem. There’s no orchestra of one. It would be better to say that Gorman is conducting two very large orchestras at the same time, one of which doesn’t know the other one is playing.
Now, there are some excellent reviews of Gorman’s poem by women of color that get more to the heart of the contradiction. But they aren’t close readings of the language and I’m also running out of time. However, I have linked them for you in the show notes. You should read them. Ashley Jones for CNN Opinion and Kadish Morris for The Guardian Opinion.
Let me end by saying this.
When Black women speak, let’s give them credit for their willingness to disrupt the platitudes of language that lubricate the well-oiled machines of oppression. Let’s stop rewarding them for being subjects of recitation.
Gorman’s poem should be taken seriously and critiqued precisely as a revolutionary statement of disruption rather than praised as yet another example of a Black woman who made America feel better.