President Biden’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 2021, set a new tone for American’s future and gave us a reason to hope.
As an English teacher, I was listening to President Biden’s speech for references and allusions to other works of literature and was not disappointed. This article dives into the history of a few of his phrases to help the listener appreciate his speech at a deeper level. I recommend that teachers share the speech with their students as a great example of speech writing and the use of allusions and references to American Literature.
A Dream Deferred
“A cry of racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.” — Biden
This is an allusion to the poem “Harlem” written by African American Langston Hughes in 1951.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes was a member of the Harlem Renaissance, a blossoming literature and art in the African American community beginning in the 1920s. This poem appears in many public school literature textbooks and should be familiar to most Americans. Here is an analysis of the poem by the Poetry Foundation.
Two small words, “dream deferred” contain power. By using these words in his speech, Biden brings to mind the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement. Their protests against police brutality were sparked when George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 26, 2020. The images of the protests against the backdrop daily COVID-19 statistics will remain etched in our collective memories.
Put my Whole Soul Into It
“In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the President said, ‘If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.’ My whole soul is in it. Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.” Biden
President Lincoln considered the Emancipation Proclamation the most important part of his legacy. Our country is currently having an “uncivil war.” Referencing Lincoln’s quote and his own “whole soul” commitment, signifies that Biden truly understands how divided we are as a nation and what is at stake. He feels called upon to save the Union.
Our Better Angels
“Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks, our ‘better angels’ have always prevailed.” -Biden
This is a reference to President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address in 1861. The words that Lincoln uttered eerily echo today’s political climate. Modern Americans can still remember a country where we didn’t hate each other, where we still had bonds of affection regardless of political ideology.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from eerie battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Abraham Lincoln
The figure of speech “better angels” was well known in the 1800s. Lincoln’s audience would have understood it as an allusion to other works of literature. It appeared in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144, “The Passionate Pilgrime” in 1599. Better angels were also mentioned in Charles Dickens Barnaby Ridge from 1841, and in many political speeches of the 1800s.
“The phrase would have called forth the notions of enlightened, calm and virtuous judgement — the best guides to sensible and honorable conduct in any person or nation.” -Sven Yargs
If there every was a time when our nation needed enlightened, calm and virtuous judgment it is now.
“We will need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter.” -Biden
Biden is actually quoting himself. He predicted that COVID-19 would bring a dark winter in his first presidential candidate debate with President Trump. At the time, on September 29, 2020, the U.S. had just over 220,000 deaths from COVID-19. President Trump downplayed the virus and promised that we had “rounded the corner.”
Biden’s prediction of a dark winter was correct, and on January 20, 2021, in the United States, there were over 400,000 deaths from COVID-19. Worldwide there were 2,083,257 deaths. More Americans died in one year from the virus than died in WWII. Near the end of his speech, Biden included a moment of silent prayer for the COVID-19 victims and their loved ones.
This Winter of Peril and Possibility
“We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility.” -Biden
I loved the way this expression sounded and thought that it must be from a great piece of literature. I could only turn up two references that may or may not have influenced Biden’s use of this phrase.
I discovered a speech, “Peril and Possibility: Strikes, Rights, and Legal Change in the Era of Trump” given by Kate Andrias for the University of Michigan in 2018. Andrias was a labor law attorney and the speech discussed income inequality in America and the loss of worker rights. These are both issues that President Biden has promised to address.
The phrase may also be inspired by the children’s book Winter of Peril by Jan Andrews for the Dear Canada historical fiction series. It is the story of a pioneer family trying to survive the winter in Newfoundland. The use of the word “winter” could also just be another reference to our dark winter of COVID-19.
President Biden quotes from a song called “American Anthem” in his speech. This song was written by composer Gene Scheer in the late 1990s. Here is a video of a performance of the song by the United States Navy Band.
Scheer said he was inspired to write the song after reading a book about the signing of the Constitution. Scheer intended the song to be a call to action and this echoes the theme of Biden’s speech of all of us working together for unity.
“One of the reasons why people respond to the song is because it reminds people about their responsibility to the country. It triggers something where people feel that they haven’t given enough and they know that in their hearts. It was partly a rallying call to myself. It reminded me to get out there and get my hands dirty and do something.” Gene Scheer
President Biden gave us an inaugural speech of hope and unity. It is also a reminder that words matter. That the president has the power to inspire goodness and right action. Let us all take his speech as a call to action. We must work to set aside our differences, reach across the aisle, and heal our nation.