On Wednesday morning in Washington, D.C., the world watched as a Black and South Asian woman took a well-earned position of power in the nation’s government. Kamala Harris embodies the ideal of a multiracial, gender-equal democracy, but it was another Black woman, Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who captured the nation’s hearts and imagination.
Gorman may have been new to many of those watching the 23-year-old—the youngest inaugural poet in American history. But as one of The Root’s 2019 Young Futurists, we were thrilled to see her command the dais during this historic moment (and making history of her own). The world now knows Amanda Gorman and her incredible talent, but for those unfamiliar with her before Wednesday, here’s a quick fact sheet:
The poet was only 19 when she was granted the title, after first becoming the inaugural youth poet laureate of her native Los Angeles at age 16, in 2014.
“It was really such an incredible honor, one I could’ve never imagined,” Gorman recalled when speaking about the national recognition with The Root in 2019, also noting: “It was a lot of pressure, but at the same time a huge platform I felt I could use to make change.”
“Having a mom who is a teacher had a huge impact on me,” she recently told the LA Times.
“I grew up at this incredibly odd intersection in Los Angeles, where it felt like the black ’hood met black elegance met white gentrification met Latin culture met wetlands,” Gorman further explained to the New York Times in 2018. “What contributed to my writing early on is how my mom encouraged it. She kept the TV off because she wanted my siblings and I to be engaged and active. So we made forts, put on plays, musicals, and I wrote like crazy.”
In 2018, Gorman starred with her twin sister Gabrielle, a fellow activist, in the video “Rise Up As One” for the California Endowment, directed and edited by Gabrielle with a poem written and performed by Amanda.
“I think the takeaway from this piece is that there is so much power in unity, and by that I mean embracing our differences while appreciating our sameness,” Gabrielle explained to Bustle in 2018, echoing many of the same sentiments her twin expressed on Wednesday. “I feel it’s prudent to understand that to fight for one group of people is essentially to fight for all people,” she later added. “You can’t be against racism but anti-trans, just like you can’t be feminist and anti-black—they’re practically oxymorons! All communities are interwoven and affect each other, either directly or indirectly.”
“I think it’s important to recognize that it isn’t necessary to erase our differences to be united,” Amanda added, proving that her inaugural message is her bond. “That is why this poem calls out to so many different demographics without losing a common ground.”
Like President Joe Biden and one of her idols, Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, Gorman has lived with a speech impediment.
Gorman is a proud member of “the speech difficulty club,” as she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper (who revealed a past stammer himself) following her elegant recitation at the Capitol. In fact, Gorman, who wore jewelry paying tribute to Angelou during her performance, says she couldn’t articulate the letter “r” until just a few years ago (while still an undergraduate student at Harvard—no big deal). Prior to that, she says she was “dropping a whole swath of letters in the alphabet.”
Gorman explained that poetry and spoken word actually helped her become more confident in her public speaking, as she used it as a form of speech pathology. How’d she tackle those r’s? By memorizing “Aaron Burr, Sir” from Hamilton, which also got a shoutout in Gorman’s inaugural poem.
Further speaking to Gorman’s brilliance is how she’s used a hypersensitivity to sound to fuel her creative process, composing her poems the way a painter might approach a canvas. Explaining her creative process to the New York Times, she said:
Both the external and the internal [emotions] trigger me. If I’m writing about something internal, say past experiences, I’m writing about it in relation to an external reality, like the ocean. When that connection happens in my mind, I grab a pen and find the closest excuse for sunlight. I usually begin with a word cloud, where I write down the best words I’ve heard that week—like plum, stone, spoon—I don’t know why but I love words like that.
I then take those words and begin to write. I think about the content of what I’m writing first, just getting the lines out and choosing the most necessary ones. Only then do I think about a shape that comes out of that meaning. Where do I want this line to break? Do I want the stanzas to be shaped like a girl, or a house? ...I just see it, rather than hear it, if that makes sense.
If you loved Gorman’s vision for America under the Biden-Harris administration, you can thank first lady Dr. Jill Biden, who “is a fan of her work and convinced the inaugural committee that Gorman would be a perfect fit,” Gorman received the commission in December, according to the LA Times. It wasn’t Gorman’s first inaugural poem, however; she also wrote and recited the poem “Making Mountains as We Run,” for the inauguration of incoming Harvard University president Larry Bacow in 2018, while she was a junior at the school.
“Wasn’t [Amanda Gorman]’s poem just stunning? She’s promised to run for president in 2036 and I for one can’t wait,” Hillary Clinton tweeted following Gorman’s triumphant appearance. Speaking with Cooper, Gorman laughed but didn’t refute the suggestion, instead musing “‘Madam President Gorman’—I like the sound of that.”
Accordingly, we can muse about the prospect of another creative, thoughtful, empathetic, and absolutely brilliant Black president, as well, since as Gorman told the Harvard Gazette, “It’s not enough for me to write. I have to do right as well.”