The City on the Hill Requires Climbing

Amanda Gorman at the Inauguration

Tuesday

With American democracy under threat, I’ve been teaching civics-through-poetry to my eight-year-old grandson, so of course we had to look at “The Hill We Climb,” the Amanda Gorman poem that galvanized the nation during the inauguration.

I like what Washington Post’s Karen Attiah had to say about Gorman’s reading. As important as Biden’s speech was, Gorman’s poem drove home the hope many of us were feeling:

[S]he was not a luxury. The purifying power of poetry has existed as long as humans have wielded words. And for women especially, as [poet Audre] Lorde said, poetry “is a vital necessity of our existence.” Biden’s inaugural words about unity and coming together were good and helpful and presidential. But it was Gorman’s truth that was the necessary one.

Necessary for Black women in America. In a country that so loves to profit from our political, cultural and emotional labor, Gorman reminded those of us who live at the intersection of sexism and racism that we do not have the luxury of settling for hollow #BlackWomenWillSaveUs platitudes. Not when this country is unable to save us from discrimination, police brutality or dying in childbirth.

I was struck how readily Gorman rose to the challenge of occasional poetry (poetry written for a special occasion), which used to be common expectation (and income source) for poets in centuries past but has fallen out of fashion. She succeeded in part by channeling the voice of previous African American orators and poets. Her “we will rise” refrain, for instance, echoes both Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (“this nation will rise up”) and Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

America as a city on a hill, of course, has a long tradition, stemming back to John Withrop’s injunction to build a civilization where “the eyes of all people are upon us.” John Kennedy invoked the image shortly after being elected, as did Ronald Reagan. Gorman’s focus is on climbing that hill, climbing having its own rich history within the African American community, from the Negro spiritual “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” to Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son.” Hughes’s poem concludes,

So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now —
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

And then there’s the late Naomi Long Madgett’s “Midway,” which I wrote about recently https://betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/mountains-loom-before-me-and-i-wont-stop-now/and which concludes with the line, “Mighty mountains loom before me and I won’t stop now.”

In Gorman’s poem, my grandson particularly liked the lines,

[B]eing American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it,
that would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy,
and this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can periodically be delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.

He also felt inspired and personally challenged by the closing lines:

[W]hen the day comes we step out of the shade
aflame and unafraid,
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.

Think of how much we want young people to encounter this idealism.

Discussing the poem in light of the Capitol Hill seditionists, Alban and I found comfort in Gorman’s confidence in the future. (Alban said, “Wow!” while watching a video of her delivering “The Hill We Climb.”) We also looked at the poem’s style. While written in free verse (no regular rhyme or rhythm), it does have a few rhymes (the best ones are often female, such as “inherit,” “repair it,” and “share it”), along with puns and alliteration. I challenged Alban to find the largest alliterative cluster, which he did (“to compose a country committed/ to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man”).

I’ve only found prose transcriptions of the poem—none laid out on the page as it will be in Gorman’s forthcoming collection—so what I share here is my approximation.

The Hill We Climb
By Amanda Gorman

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned
that quiet isn’t always peace
and the norms and notions of what just is,
isn’t always justice.
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it,
somehow we do it,
somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time
where a skinny black girl descended from slaves
and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one.
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,
we are striving to forge a union
with purpose,
to compose a country committed
to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

So we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another,
we seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
that even as we grieved, we grew,
even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together victorious,
not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one should make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade,
but in in all of the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade,
the hill we climb
if only we dare it
because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it,
that would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy,
and this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can periodically be delayed,
it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith, we trust,
for while we have our eyes on the future,
history has its eyes on us,
this is the era of just redemption we feared in its inception
we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter,
to offer hope and laughter to ourselves,
so while once we asked
how can we possibly prevail over catastrophe,
now we assert
how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.

We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be,
a country that is bruised but whole,
benevolent but bold, fierce and free,
we will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation,
our blunders become their burden.
But one thing is certain: if we merge mercy with might
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better
than the one we were left,
with every breath from my bronze, pounded chest,
we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one,
we will rise
from 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 sunbaked South,
we will rebuild, reconcile, and recover
in every known nook of our nation
in every corner called our country
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge
battered and beautiful,
when the day comes we step out of the shade
aflame and unafraid,
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.

This entry was posted in Angelou (Maya), Gorman (Amanda), Hughes (Langston), Madgett (Naomi Long) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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