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On Inauguration Day, the hill we climb and the dreams we can no longer defer

Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman reads 'The Hill We Climb'
Amanda Gorman, 22, the youngest inauguration poet in U.S. history, reads her poem "The Hill We Climb" during the inauguration of President Biden Wednesday. (Video via C-SPAN, Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty)

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.

We, who hope to see the liberation dreams of our ancestors come to light, have fought for our lives and the promise of democracy to see tyranny unseated. As we tuned into the inauguration of President Biden, it was National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman who soothed our souls.

Reading “The Hill We Climb,” she gave us a forever spiritual to sing. A poem for us. And that passage, about being a Black girl whose bloodlines still ripple in the pipeline wave of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, was not just her self-reflection. It was as much about Gorman as it was all Black girls who dream big and now find themselves closer to those dreams. It was as much about those girls as it was about Kamala Harris, who dreamed of being president and now finds herself serving alongside one as Madam Vice President.

And that little girl was me,” Harris said only a year and a half ago, when she was a presidential candidate.

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She gave us that woman’s war cry as she debated Biden. A daughter of Brown v. Board of Education, Harris was unafraid to call out the party’s elder statesman during the Democratic presidential debates. That boldness and honesty, perhaps, is part of what propelled him to see her as his co-captain.

Unlike vice presidents before her, Harris does not take this seat alone. She brings girls and women all over the country with her — especially Black women. Harris is a Black woman, a daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, a woman of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, a Howard University woman, a woman who knows not to shut the door behind her.

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She proved that right from the start Wednesday. Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, a hero in the Jan. 6 attacks, escorted her to the stage. She wore Black designers Sergio Hudson and Christopher John Rogers. Her pearls, a nod to AKA, were by Puerto Rican designer Wilfredo Rosado.

She chose Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court’s first woman of color and its first Latina, to swear her in. Harris used two Bibles: one formerly owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, and another that belonged to the late Regina Shelton, a woman she loved as her “second mom,” a neighborhood auntie, the type we know to treasure in communities of color.

The Howard University marching band accompanied her to the White House. And as vice president, one of her first moves was to swear in her replacement, Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator. She also issued the oath to both historic Georgia senators, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator, and Jon Ossoff, the state’s first Jewish senator.

Representation matters. And we pray we see it in policy, too. We demand it.

As Madam Vice President Harris and President Biden took their oaths, we hoped we were opening the door to an era of building a healthy democracy. We know there is a vicious fight ahead and one election doesn’t solve our problems, but let this be, as Gorman imagines, a step forward.

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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.

America has failed, many times over, to live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. Biden and Harris, like any politicians we would have elected, are not without flaws. But here is where we usher in a true democratic chapter: people over party, over president, over power.

When Biden said “we celebrate not the triumph of a candidate, but a cause, the cause of a democracy,” he amplified the will of the people and the preciousness of democracy.

We must hold that value of democracy to be true and show it with our little votes, the neighborhood vote, the city vote, the state vote. We must hold the importance of the people, all of us, to be true by collectively subscribing to the fact that unity cannot exist without justice. We must hold this to be true by loving people more than money.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover, and every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.

Gorman cast hope for profound possibilities with her poem in a way not felt since Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of the Morning,” in 1993 at the inauguration of Bill Clinton. Angelou spoke from her spirit, too:

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History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. Lift up your eyes upon this day breaking for you. Give birth again to the dream.

We are not dreaming for fairy tales. We are dreaming for freedom, the kind that is not a concept but is our reality, that which has been kept out of our reach for too long. What happens to a dream deferred, poet Langston Hughes once wondered, in “Harlem.”

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?

We have seen America on fire and on the road to blowing apart with capitalism and white supremacy. We have seen what happens to a nation when hierarchy pretends to be equity.

On Inauguration Day, we want to dream a dream of freedom that can be real, one of justice that is attainable, one of peace that understands accountability to be necessary.

As Biden said in his first presidential speech, “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”

We cannot just declare justice. We must embody justice. Gorman sent us off with that reminder.

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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.

We are the light. And our flame must be enduring as the path to liberation is long. The power cannot be in any one president or vice president. It is our time as the people to burn bright, brave, and free.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.