Book Review: The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman

Book Review: The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman

the hill we climb

Poetry: The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman


On a brisk January day in 2021, a young woman in a bright yellow coat and a red hat stood before President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, multiple dignitaries and powerful politicians, and an international television audience. At only 22 years old, Amanda Gorman became the sixth poet ever invited to share an inaugural poem with the nation. In so doing, she followed in the steps of immortal luminaries such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.


Her poem, The Hill We Climb, was written for the inauguration. I listened on the radio as she read it. Her voice was clear, strong; her cadence measured; her tone extraordinarily mature for one so young. I was utterly captivated by her words and by the voice reading those words. Amanda Gorman has a lot to say, she says it extremely well, and it is absolutely worth hearing.


After greeting the president and first lady and the rest of her listeners, Gorman asks the question that her poem goes on to answer: “When day comes, we ask ourselves/Where can we find light/In this never-ending shade?” January of 2021 cast some dark shadows over the US and the world. We were in the teeth of the COVID pandemic, and the vaccine had just come out a couple of weeks earlier. We were two weeks removed from an attempted coup fomented by the former president. Our troops were still in Afghanistan. The economy struggled with record unemployment and a brutal recession. A year of unrest highlighted ongoing racial inequalities in economic opportunity and criminal justice. 


For those like myself who felt the previous administration had been an almost unmitigated disaster, the election and inauguration was indeed like the coming of a new day. That is not to say I or anyone else thought the new administration would be a cure-all. Many of the problems we face predated 2016 and will likely still haunt us for years to come. But we hoped at least that the reversals in progress on multiple fronts would at least be slowed or stemmed. A new day was dawning, finally, but there were still clouds and storms looming over us.


Many of us, maybe most of us, were indeed asking “Where is the light”? Many of us wondered whether our country had been irreparably broken. Gorman acknowledges that concern, but responds with ferocity: “Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed/A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” She uses her own life as an example: that America is a country “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.” For all of our faults, and there are many, this remains a nation of reinvention and opportunity. We seldom achieve our ideals. We have never fully embraced that all men are created equal. We constantly fail to form a more perfect union. But we continue to try…and sometimes, somehow, despite our own self-inflicted damage, we succeed.


Gorman concludes with this stirring challenge. “For there is always light,/If only we’re brave enough to see it,/If only we’re brave enough to be it.” The ideals, the promise, the vision of America is not embodied in the halls of power in Washington. It is carried by her people. That is the key to both our successes and failures. When we as a people react to crises with fear and anger, lashing out at perceived enemies at home and abroad, we poison the well of our own ideals. But when we respond with hope and dignity and courage and compassion, we carry the promise of those high ideals to the world and to our own children.


I can only hope that the Biden administration gets it right. Early returns are mixed. There are bright spots. There have been some frustrating and embarrassing missteps as well. My confidence, though, is that with people like Amanda Gorman setting the tone, the future is brighter for my children and grandchildren.


Also see: video of author


the hill we climb

Book Review: The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman

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