In a star-studded inauguration featuring Lady Gaga and J-Lo, the 22-year old poet stole the spotlight at president Joe Biden’s inauguration. Accolades poured in from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Al Gore, who pointed to Gorman’s call to climate action, Earthrise. Gorman’s soon-to-be-published books of poetry, including one for children, jumped to the top of bestseller lists.
The fifth poet invited to present at a U.S. presidential inauguration, Gorman demonstrated to a weary nation the vital role of poetry and the arts in society. Her performance, the New York’s Times’ Dwight Garner said, felt like “the beginning of a remade connection in America between cultural and political life. A sleeping limb was tingling back into action.” The performance was all the more remarkable considering Gorman, like Biden, has worked to overcome a childhood speech impediment. Her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” finished in the aftermath of the mob attack on the Capitol, describes “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
“Culture connects us,” the cellist Yo-Yo Ma says in a recent essay published on ImpactAlpha. It is “how we create meaning, find purpose, understand each other, experience wonder and construct new realities.” To meet the challenges of racial injustice, climate change and a bitterly divided populace, artists such as Gorman are helping construct new narratives.
Hundreds of creative professionals signed a letter urging Biden and vice president Kamala Harris to create a cabinet-level arts and culture agency. “Your candidacy was framed as a battle for the soul of this country,” they wrote. “You need artists and arts workers to win this battle.” Gorman, a self-described “skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is part of a generation stepping up to that work. “The Hill We Climb” concludes:
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.