The bright light of Amanda Gorman

The bright light of Amanda Gorman

When I first heard of Amanda Gorman, she was 17 years old. A tiny slip of a girl who’d become the nation’s first Youth Poet Laureate. She had begun making her mark on the literary world long before that, and her words had already carried her far.

So I considered myself lucky that in 2018, I was able to secure her participation in a tribute to the profound and prolific poet Sonia Sanchez at the March on Washington Film Festival.

The evening was a triumph. First, Sweet Honey in the Rock sang and rocked us back to the height of the Black Arts Movement. Then, scholar and cultural creative Yaba Blay spoke of the impact Sister Sonia had on her life with such eloquence that many in the audience were moved to tears.

This was followed by Sister Sonia herself, in conversation with Obama inaugural poet, author and arts leader Elizabeth Alexander, who, in this setting, was but an acolyte at the feet of the master.

Amanda had the task of capping the evening with an original poem. She rose to the microphone, her hair a black corona of nappy glory around her smooth, ebony, lit-from-within face, willing herself out loud to calm down. So excited was she to be in the presence of the elder whose writings had long ignited her soul. View performance here.

When she finished reading, Ms. Sanchez publicly affirmed that the circle of griots and wordsmiths was indeed unbroken. It was magical to witness this transference of the mantle in the poet/spirit line.

Now Amanda has done it again. Her brilliant inaugural poem has captured the political moment with a poignant lyricism that has taken the world by storm. Her words, to paraphrase the Irish poet, evoke the space where “hope and history rhyme.”

The accolades are raining down on her, as well they should, and a nation starving for healing outstretches its many grasping hands.

Let us proceed with caution.

The way our society sometimes treats its stars is to thrust upon them outsized expectations with a soupcon of envy; a flock of sycophants with a fringe of backbiters; a breathless barrage of offers to pose endorse appear consult and perform; a tsunami of fame and a deluge of cash.

Amanda Gorman steps to the podium to recite her inaugural poem, "The Hill We Climb," during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. Photo: Carlos M. Vazquez II / Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Amanda Gorman steps to the podium to recite her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. Photo: Carlos M. Vazquez II / Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Amanda is not our savior, she is our sister. We want room for her to keep learning and developing in her own way, at her own pace. Her creativity nurtured, her values protected.

Yes, we want her to be amply acknowledged for her genius, and richly rewarded for her work. More than that, we want for her to do so in safety, with peace of mind and heart.

There is a line in the Tao Te Ching, one of the world’s oldest books of philosophy and the foundational text of Taoism that, translated, says, “If you over esteem great men, people become powerless.”

I think that means fixing our intense admiration on a star, sage or leader can tempt us to abdicate our own responsibility to become the stars, sages, and leaders we were each born to be.

Our platforms may not be as grand, but our influence — at the dinner table or the operating table, in the conference room and classroom, on loading docks and assembly lines, from the pulpit or in the congregation — is just as vital.

More than half the country and most of the world collectively exhaled on Inauguration Day. Amanda’s poem reminds us of our struggles and our endurance, of the promise and the work, the real work, still very much ahead of us.

As we warm ourselves at her inner fire, let us remember that her radiance is there not just to illumine our way, but to remind us of our own.

She said it best.

For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

March On!

This piece was first published on the March on Washington Film Festival and has been edited slightly.