9 American greats Amanda Gorman referenced in her poem performed during Joe Biden’s inauguration, from Maya Angelou to Barack Obama
During a reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb,” 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman paid homage to Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Barack Obama.
By Allana Akhtar
Students and historians will study Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” following her breathtaking performance at the 2021 presidential inauguration.
Gorman, a 22-year-old and the nation’s first youth poet laureate, read her work after the swearing in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
In her six-minute performance, Gorman alluded to the works of great American writers and speakers like Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, and Abraham Lincoln.
The poet told NPR she deeply researched her work by reading American literature and studying performances by other poet laureates.
“I think there is a real history of orators who have had to struggle, a type of imposed voicelessness, you know, having that stage at inauguration,” Gorman said. “So it’s really special for me.”
Here are nine references Gorman’s poem made to iconic American literature.
Gorman alluded to fellow inaugural poet Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Still I Rise.’
Gorman referenced the Angelou poem “Still I Rise,” about the poet overcoming prejudice as a Black woman, when she said: “We will rise through the golden hills of the West. We will rise from the windswept Northeast, where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South.”
Angelou, a Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, preformed her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration. Gorman told Vogue she studied Angelou’s work to prepare for her reading.
Famous lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s address during the 1963 March on Washington appeared in the poem.
Gorman referenced lines from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech when she said: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”
King famously said during his speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Gorman nodded to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
In 1863, Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in part to inspire soldiers fighting the civil war by saying, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
Gorman nodded to Lincoln’s “unfinished work” in her line: “Somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
Gorman references two iconic Langston Hughes poems in a single line.
Toward the end of her poem, Gorman said: “In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.”
Hughes begins “Still Here” with, “I’ve been scared and battered. My hopes the wind done scattered.” The poet ends “I, Too” with, “They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed — I, too, am America.”
Gorman referenced a phrase used frequently by George Washington.
George Washington used the biblical phrase “under their vine and fig tree” numerous times in correspondence, according to historian George Tsakiridis.
Gorman references this phrase when she said, “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”
Gorman references Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “change we can believe in.”
Gorman said, “If we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.”
The nod to “change” brings back Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan and acceptance address line, “change has come to America.”
Gorman seemed to reference a famous saying from abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
When Gorman said, “Being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it,” she may have been referring to a famous saying by Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
The poet said she studied Douglass’s work prior to her address.
Gorman nodded to Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner’s work, “Intruder In the Dust.”
In “Intruder in the Dust,” Faulkner’s 1948 book that explores Jim Crow’s effect on the American South, the author said Americans love nothing but their automobile, which they spend Sunday “polishing and waxing” and renews each year in “pristine virginity.”
Gorman seemed to reference this work when she said, “And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.”
The title of her poem references the sermon of English settler John Winthrop.
Gorman’s poem title, “The Hill We Climb,” seemed to call out the description Winthrop gave New England: a “city upon a hill” that would set an example for the rest of the world.
Bonus: Gorman made two references to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s award-winning play, ‘Hamilton.’
Gorman said on Twitter she made two references to the Tony Award winning musical, “Hamilton.”
The first, “for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us,” alludes to the song, “History Has Its Eyes on You.”
The second is in reference to Washington’s saying, “under their vine and fig tree,” which the character in “Hamilton” also called to in the play.
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