Amanda Gorman is the poet who made history at President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony. At age 22, she was the youngest inaugural poet the United States has ever had.
According to the Associated Press, Dr. Jill Biden nominated Gorman for the role. Despite her young age, Gorman was already a seasoned pro in this particular field. She had written poems for events such as the inauguration of Harvard President Larry Bacow and the Fourth of July celebration with the Boston Pops in 2019.
Following the inauguration, it was announced that Gorman had been invited to recite a poem during the pregame ceremonies at Super Bowl LV on February 7. Gorman’s new poem will honor the three Americans who were chosen to be honorary captions at the game for their work amid the coronavirus pandemic: teacher Trimaine Davis, nurse manager Suzie Dorner and Marine veteran James Martin, according to an NFL news release.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Gorman Described Writing Her Inaugural Poem, ‘The Hill We Climb,’ as One of the Most Important Moments of Her Career
The Biden inaugural team reached out to Gorman in late December about delivering an original poem at the inauguration ceremony. She told the Associated Press that she was largely granted free rein over the poem but was encouraged to highlight “unity and hope.” Gorman said the Biden team also recommended that she stay away from anything that might sound like they were celebrating the end of President Donald Trump’s tenure.
Gorman explained she initially struggled to write more than a few lines per day. She expressed her initial concern in an interview with The New York Times. “I had this huge thing, probably one of the most important things I’ll ever do in my career,” Gorman said. “It was like, if I try to climb this mountain all at once, I’m just going to pass out.”
But the events of January 6 gave Gorman a “second wave of energy to finish the poem,” she told the Associated Press. Gorman said the poem, which she titled “The Hill We Climb,” would take her about six minutes to read.
Gorman said the poem would reference what she described as “the Confederate insurrection” without explicitly calling out anyone. She shared a couple of verses with The New York Times ahead of the inauguration:
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
Gorman also told The Times that she hoped to use her words to “envision a way in which our country can still come together and can still heal. It’s doing that in a way that is not erasing or neglecting the harsh truths I think America needs to reconcile with.” You can watch her perform the inaugural poem here. Read the lyrics here.
2. Like Biden, Gorman Overcame a Childhood Speech Impediment
President Biden has long been open about the fact that he struggled with a stutter as a child. His mother, Jean Biden, once famously told off a nun at his school for mocking him about it. According to the Stuttering Foundation, Biden worked to overcome the speech impediment by reciting poetry while facing a mirror.
Biden and Gorman have that in common. Gorman also had to work to overcome a speech impediment as a child. She explained to The Harvard Gazette in 2018 that she had an auditory disorder that caused her to “hear and process information differently than other people.”
In a January 2021 interview with NPR, she specified that her speech impediment included difficulty pronouncing certain letters of the alphabet, including the letter R. “I’d want to say ‘girls can change the world,’ but I cannot say so many letters in that statement, so I’d say things like ‘young women can shape the globe,’” she told NPR. “I would be in the bathroom scribbling five minutes before trying to figure out if I could say ‘Earth’ or if I can say ‘girl’ or if I can say ‘poetry.’ And you know, doing the best with the poem I could.”
Gorman told the Los Angeles Times that she now believes the disorder may have enhanced her skills as a writer. “I don’t look at my disability as a weakness. It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be. When you have to teach yourself how to say sounds, when you have to be highly concerned about pronunciation, it gives you a certain awareness of sonics, of the auditory experience.”
3. Gorman Was Named the First National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017
Gorman has racked up a long list of accomplishments in her relatively short career thus far. At age 16, she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Three years later, at age 19, she was honored as the first National Youth Poet Laureate. She accepted the honor in a ceremony at the Gracie Mansion in New York City.
While serving as the Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman sat down with Jenna Bush Hager for the Today show. Gorman explained that her poetry focuses on social change and justice because she feels she has a duty to use her voice. “That passion comes from my heritage. It comes from this place where like, I must write. I must speak up because there have been too many people who’ve been kept from that opportunity.”
Gorman has already performed her poetry on major stages. In 2016, she was invited to the Obama White House as part of a celebration with other Youth Poet Laureates from around the country. Gorman later gushed to GirlBoss about what it was like to meet Michelle Obama. “I’m so surprised I didn’t faint because when I walked into the room and I saw her, my brain just stopped working,” Gorman recalled. “I just sputtered out, ‘I love you!’ I was just so overwhelmed. It’s like standing next to a goddess. I can’t even.”
According to her website, Gorman has read her poetry in front of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Gore, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Malala Yousafzai. She performed her poem “In This Place: An American Lyric” at the Library of Congress in 2017. She read her poem “The Gathering Place” at the 2017 Social Good Summit, which was put on by the United Nations.
Gorman has also performed her poetry multiple times for CBS This Morning. She recited her poem “The Miracle of Morning” for the morning news program as a hopeful message amid the coronavirus pandemic.
4. Gorman Was Raised in Los Angeles By a Single Mother & Studied Sociology at Harvard
Gorman was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has an older brother named Spencer and a twin sister named Gabrielle. Gorman talked about her childhood with 10 magazine and described herself as having been “a grandmother in a seven-year-old’s body.” She said there was an internal struggle between “the social Amanda, who is excited and talks to people and engages, and then there is the poetic Amanda, who by necessity exists off the subsistence of a reclusive life.”
Gorman was raised by a single mother, Joan Wicks, who worked as a middle school teacher, the Los Angeles Times reported. In an interview with Study Breaks magazine in 2017, Gorman discussed how her mother’s teaching career influenced her:
Having a mother as a sixth grade English teacher in an inner city public school gave me an up-close and personal view of how literacy influences young students. I realized that education can really be a life-or-death resource. That sounds dramatic, but to kids who grow up in these neighborhoods, it’s not. It’s reality. School and college is a pathway to get off the streets, to break a cycle. I wrote about this for the LA Youth Poet Laureate ceremony in a poem called Neighborhood Anthem. My mother worked so hard while raising three kids to get her doctorate and master’s degrees in Education. She inspires me every day to seek higher education not only for myself, but for the other students around me.
5. Gorman Is a Published Author & Hosted a PBS Special About Racism
Gorman is a published author. Her first book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, was published by Penmanship Books in 2015, according to Poets.org.
As Gorman notes on her website, she has two new books that she expects to release with Penguin Random House in 2021. One of those books is a collection of poetry that shares a title with her inauguration piece, The Hill We Climb.
Gorman has also written a children’s book called Change Sings. She explained on social media that she wants the book to serve as a “children’s anthem to remind young readers that they have the power to shape the world.”
In recent months, Gorman has also tried her hand at TV hosting. She served as the host for a PBS Kids special about racism in October 2020. Gorman told USA Today that she feels adults should talk to children about race early on. “One piece of advice I would have is we often don’t give kids enough credit for their intelligence, particularly their emotional and moral intelligence,” Gorman said. “The children of today are ready to have deeper conversations that supersede just talking about Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. Not to say that those figures aren’t important, but there’s such a beautiful rich tapestry of the history of fighting for racial equality, and it’s a story that our children deserve to be told.”