Amanda Gorman: poetry from dead white men is taught in school

Who could forget the moving words spoken by poet Amanda Gorman at the Inauguration on January 20th? Her words were felt by so many. In fact, when Amanda was interviewed by seasoned journalist Anderson Cooper, Anderson became flummoxed by Amanda’s brilliance. Amanda’s upcoming three books are now topping Amazon’s best-sellers list and she is slated to recite an original poem for Super Bowl LV.

The beautiful thing about Amanda, a 22 year old Harvard graduate, is how she is bringing a refreshingly 21st century take to poetry. By being so young and dynamic, Amanda’s ability to twist words into new meanings rivals any old or new school lyricist (read rapper). Amanda has basically made poetry cool again. Now Amanda sat down with forever First Lady Michelle Obama for an interview to accompany her cover on Time. Michelle seems to be gushing over Amanda throughout the interview. And Michelle never gushes. Amanda talks about what inspires her poetry, what mantra she uses before going on stage and how educators should reframe poetry. It’s typically been about stuffy old rich white men but Amanda wants poetry education to highlight POC who have transformed the art:

Michelle Obama: We’re here to talk about the current renaissance in Black art—this surge of creativity we’ve seen over the past six years or so. What do you make of calling this period a “renaissance”? And where do you see yourself within it?
Amanda Gorman: We’re living in an important moment in Black art because we’re living in an important moment in Black life. Whether that’s looking at what it means politically to have an African-American President before Trump, or looking at what it means to have the Black Lives movement become the largest social movement in the United States. What’s been exciting for me is I get to absorb and to live in that creation I see from other African-American artists that I look up to. But then I also get to create art and participate in that historical record. We’re seeing it in fashion, we’re seeing it in the visual arts. We’re seeing it in dance, we’re seeing it in music. In all the forms of expression of human life, we’re seeing that artistry be informed by the Black experience. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that.

You are part of a rising generation that isn’t afraid to call out racism and injustice when you see it. Your generation was out front at the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and you were using your voices long before that to demand change. How do you think art fits into these larger social movements? Do you think about these things as you write?
Absolutely. Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movements for change. If we look to the Black Lives Matter protests, you see banners that say, They buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds. That’s poetry being marshaled to speak of racial justice. If you analyze Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it’s a great document of rhetoric that’s also a great document of poetry, of imagery, of song. Never underestimate the power of art as the language of the people.

Poetry sometimes gets a bad rap—people think it’s all stuffy. How do you think we can make poetry accessible and cool, especially for a young audience?
Poetry is already cool. Where we run into trouble is often we are looking through such a tight pinhole of what poems can be. Specifically we’re looking at dead white men. Those are the poems that are taught in school and referred to as classics. We really need to break out of the pathology that poetry is only owned by certain elites. Where we can start is highlighting and celebrating poets who reflect humanity in all of its diverse colors and breadth.

Tell me about the poets who came before you. Where do you draw inspiration—and do you draw inspiration from artists working in other forms?
I love Black poets. I love that as a Black girl, I get to participate in that legacy. So that’s Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Tracy K. Smith, Phillis Wheatley. And then I look to artists who aren’t just poets. While I was writing the Inaugural poem, I was reading a lot of Frederick Douglass, a lot of Winston Churchill, a lot of Abraham Lincoln. I was also listening to the composers who I feel are great storytellers, but they don’t use words so I try to fill in that rhetoric myself. A lot of Hans Zimmer, Dario Marianelli, Michael Giacchino.

You have a mantra you recite to yourself before performing—can you share it here, and tell me how you came to choose these words?
This mantra I’m about to say is actually in part inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s lyrics in Moana in the song, “Song of the Ancestors.” Whenever I listen to songs, I rewrite them in my head. That song goes: “I’m the daughter of the village chief. We’re descended from voyagers who made the way across the world.” Something like that. Sorry Lin. I really wanted something that I could repeat because I get so terrified whenever I perform. So my mantra is: “I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.” I say that to remind myself of ancestors that are all around me whenever I’m performing.

“The Hill We Climb” mentions your being a descendant of slaves. What role does poetry have to play in helping you make sense of our history?
I wanted to give the American people some access to myself. A lot of the inspiration for that came from your speech at the DNC in which you said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Poetry is the lens we use to interrogate the history we stand on and the future we stand for. It’s no coincidence that at the base of the Statue of Liberty, there is a poem. Our instinct is to turn to poetry when we’re looking to communicate a spirit that is larger than ourselves. Whenever I’m writing, I’m looking at the history of words. The specific history of words in the Inaugural poem was: We have seen the ways in which language has been violated and used to dehumanize. How can I reclaim English so we can see it as a source of hope, purification and consciousness?

[From Time]

Amanda is an absolute supernova. A brilliant light showing the hope of Gen Z. I normally do not put so much on any generation because as a Gen Xer I remember the pressure my generation felt to be something bigger and better. In many ways we were and in others we were a disappointment. However, the younger millennials and Gen Z’s first wave are something amazing to behold. Their fearlessness in the face of a system that has trampled over so many inspires me. It took me several days before I actually watched Amanda Gorman deliver her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at the Inauguration because of all of the hype around it. But when I did, I was amazed because I heard Maya, Langston, Martin, Harriet and Lin and all of the ancestors that came before Amanda, but most importantly, I heard Amanda. Amanda’s voice, the voice of her generation, the voice of change and the seed of hope planted so many generations ago, watered by every generation after but blooming now. I must tell you, I am moved and joyous.

Anyways, Amanda will not be soon forgotten and despite my loving the poems of those old crusty white men, I also love the poems from the Harlem Renaissance and the poetry of music and rap and Maya and Terry. I am glad that poetry is experiencing a sort of renaissance. I do hope that going forward that poetry written by people from the 20th and 21st centuries will be honored and studied. I hope educators spotlight the cadence of poetry and how it is rooted in the experiences of BIPOC The last thing I will say is this, if Amanda is a prophecy that is foretelling the future, then the future is very bright. I hope I live long enough to see some of it.

As an aside – Our little sis Amanda looks amazing in yellowa.

This 99 year old woman was moved by The Hill We Climb:

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19 Responses to “Amanda Gorman: poetry from dead white men is taught in school”

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  1. local russian hill says:

    lovely and amazing. and inspirational.

  2. Julie says:

    I’m scared for Amanda. As the old saying goes, “they build you up so they can tear you down”. Especially when it’s a dark skin young black woman. She’s so young that mis-steps will be inevitable and boy will the media exploit it.

    • Gail Hirst says:

      Then we fight back on her behalf, with everything we’ve learned, with everything we’ve got. We do not allow the media to attack this woman without repercussion. We fight back.

    • BnLurkN4eva says:

      I have heard this so often since she exploded that I’m beginning to think it will become a self fulfilling prophesy if we are not a little more cautious about proclaiming this. Yes, many times in the past the outcome has been has you stated, but not if we make a note to ourselves to watch out for it and to call it out immediately it raises it’s ugly head.

  3. Esmom says:

    What a great interview. She really is amazing. I love her mantra. It reminds me of a similar one that some Black youth activists I chaperoned before the pandemic to GOTV shared with our group. So powerful it moved me to tears.

    As someone who switched my major from Poli Sci to English after taking a poetry class in college, I am excited to see the form getting so much attention. But she’s right in that we need more Black voices. Thanks to her, I think we will be hearing from more and giving them their place in the canon they deserve.

  4. MissMarierose says:

    That looks like a great interview, but it makes me wonder what happened to Michelle Obama’s podcast. I listened to every episode (only 9) but she hasn’t uploaded a new one in months.

  5. Miranda says:

    She’s amazing, and I still get emotional every time I think about “The Hill We Climb”. I honestly believe that it was on-par with “I Have A Dream” or “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”, and I’m just so proud that my generation of activists has Amanda to speak for us.

    Also, I love Althea. She’s a fantastic example of why “s/he grew up in a different time” is such a pathetic excuse for all the racist nonsense that many older people spout.

  6. Carmen-JamRock says:

    She is so beautiful. Whenever i see her pics i literally see her spirit just shining thru. There are folks like that….when you look at them, you immediately see who they really are. Then there are others, who you dont see clearly at first but over time they reveal themselves. It can be either disappointing, pleasantly surprising, or a confirmation of what you’d thought.
    Anyhooo…..Amanda is beautiful.

  7. mynameispearl says:

    Imagine Donald Trunp quoting a poem by Irish poet Seamus Heaney (Hope and History Rhyme) to celebrate being president elect.

    Imagine Donald Trump inviting a poet to speak at his inauguration.

    Imagine Donald Trump inviting a young black woman poet to speak at his inauguration.

    If nothing else we should celebrate Joe Biden bringing dignity and the arts back into the office of president of the USA.

  8. lucy2 says:

    I have to admit I’ve never really been one for poetry, but her performance at the inaugeration, and her incredible words, have made me rethink that! Supernova is an excellent description of her. It’s so inspiring to see her and her talent, and I’m glad she is getting the recognition she deserves.

    That cover is stunning. And also, bonus Superhero Michelle Obama photo! I still can’t get over how amazing she looked (and is).

  9. Oatmeal says:

    I stan a Queen

    God, I mean, I was an English major a million years ago and I wrote some decent poetry if I say so myself back when I was 19 or 20 or so

    But my.word , to be a poet laureate and recite at an Innauguration by age 22?

    She is a superstar!

  10. sa says:

    I love that she was inspired in her mantra by Moana. That with all she’s already accomplished, she’s could be such a snob about poetry, but instead she is open enough to see inspiration where she finds it, including from a Disney cartoon. She’s so inspiring.

  11. GuestwithCat says:

    You know what’s even better that this cool lady exists? She’s got a twin! And not an evil twin, but one who is an activist and filmmaker! How awesome is that?!! Gabrielle is her name.

    I’m in my 50’s and education has changed a lot since my day. Or so I would hope. But I remember feeling immensely frustrated in school that all we were learning about was White male history and white male perspectives with just a smattering of black history during Black History month. And what I found frustrating about Black History month and voiced to my teacher back then was that it was rounding up and pulling all of Black contributions out of their proper historical contexts. The close up of a diamond is lovely, but without its setting being included in the photo, what is the larger relevance and purpose?

    Black History month should be the celebration of historical figures who are shown in their proper historical context the other days of the year. I think that is the case now. I hope so. It was very disjointed when I was in school.

    I remember even my white friends were frustrated because they knew by looking at me with my immigrant mom that there was more to the world than Britain, America, France, Germany and Spain. But we weren’t getting much sense of what that world consisted of from our curriculum. The internet wasn’t around then, books were crazy expensive and latchkey kids of my generation didn’t always get to go to the library, either. They had to head home and take care of or answer to siblings.

    So I’m not entirely shocked that so many of the faces I see in the MAGA crowd are from my generation. You fear and disrespect what you don’t know. They never properly got to know much outside of their own history and accomplishments. Even the ones who made it to become doctors, they went through and educational system that had blinders on it.

    They really sincerely believe only the white race built machines and made the biggest and best scientific breakthroughs and the biggest and best contributions to civilization. They have no knowledge of the advanced culture of Benin City of the Edo Kingdom in Nigeria that the British destroyed in what was basically a tantrum. If we were ever told of it, and I certainly don’t remember it, it was as a footnote testament to the might of the British empire.

    They only know that Britain dominated the world with military force, and wrongly assumed that meant Britain had the superior culture, because surely if they had the best military then they had the best science and society. Might makes right. History is written by the victors. Etc. etc.

    We got a smattering of Asian history. There was no sense of the grandeur or the struggles. We did learn of the great ancient civilizations of Egypt and the Mayans, Incas, Aztec, and such but then never got to see into the lives and accomplishments and struggles of their descendants. After Spain came in it was like “Game Over”. Which is why we don’t understand the people beyond our southern border. There’s no sense of them other than as a “bunch of people trying to get into an America made great by white ingenuity and hard work.”

    The amount of erasure that went on is staggering and we saw the results of that at the Capitol.

    Amanda Gorman’s star is rising at the right and needed time. Speak it loud, Amanda. I look forward to seeing what her sister’s work is about, too.

  12. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    I’ll forever remember watching her in real time thinking how one so young could produce such maturity, deliver with so much power and yet maintain this delicate beauty that soars. She has an intellectual and spiritual strength that catapults her presence into orbit. I’d say she’s grounded, but the whole of her little package rises above us all.

  13. MaryContrary says:

    She’s amazing. One thing I’m doing this year with homeschooling my 6th grader is to do “Friday Fun Day” where we pick an artist and do a deep dive. I’ve been able to introduce him to a variety of poets/artists/musicians that are not just white guys. Today we’re actually studying Maya Angelou and I printed out “Still I Rise” and “Caged Bird” to read and discuss. I’m definitely tying in Amanda Gorman!

  14. Bettyrose says:

    You know I feel okay rooting on this generation. Gen X did/does some cool stuff but we didn’t change the world on the political stage and the Zoomers are coming at this planet to make it theirs. It’s not pressure, it’s encouragement. I as an Xer pledge to do what I can to support the younger generations have futures.

  15. Valerie says:

    She’s right. These poems have merit, but we are long overdue for a canonical update. Why focus solely on white guys who died in the 17th century when we could be studying someone like Langston Hughes or even Amanda herself? People whose words are now more relevant than ever. There were plenty of Black and non-white poets who were writing at or around the same time as Yates and Frost and Whitman. There were Black women writers like Phillis Wheatly, whose work rarely gets the attention that it deserves.

    This isn’t to say that love poems by the metaphysical poets aren’t enduring or worth keeping alive, just that we can’t do it to the exclusion of others.

  16. diamond rottweiler says:

    I adore Amanda Gorman and how she has overnight raised the profile for poetry in America. Full stop. Also, my experience as a poetry educator is that the curriculum nationally has changed wildly in recent years and the idea that poetry–if it’s taught at all–is still taught by way of canonical white dead male authors isn’t very true anymore. High schools and colleges have been leading the way in meaningfully diversifying the voices students encounter in English and Creative Writing classes. As they absolutely should. What does seem problematic and undiscussed to me at present is that public school students now are rarely encountering literature outside of late 20th to 21st century. Much of what is on high school syllabi is entirely contemporary and much of it is “popular” poetry & YA (which is fine in balance, not dissing popular poetry or YA). So, when many students get to college, they have no real experience reading anything outside of 20th century vernacular. Which doesn’t just frustratingly impact their relationship to Lit classes. Try taking *any* kind of humanities class in college feeling uncomfortable with pre 20th century modes of speaking and writing. It’s extremely difficult. So I try to strike a balance. We need the history of where we’ve been to help us understand both the good and the bad of where we are now. It’s also why I badgered my son into choose at least a couple canonical books for projects in high school when he had pick-your-own-book assignments. For which, he admitted this weekend as a college freshman, he is actually grateful. (Never heard that before. Lol.) and of course there are many canonical books and poems by great writers of color that serve this purpose.