Amanda Gorman stole the show at the inauguration on Wednesday. After she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” I looked her up and followed her on Twitter. She had 80,000 followers. Plenty of other people knew about her before this week. By the time I sat down to write this column on Thursday, her following had grown to over a million. Her words obviously connected.
“Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” Gorman asks early in her poem.
President Joe Biden was not my first choice to clean up the mess of the last four years. My first choice was Kamala Harris. Why? Because when I look at her, I see America. When she speaks hopefully, I want to listen. When she scolds people from the bench, I am thankful it is directed at someone else. She connects with me. That connection gives me confidence that our values are similar. Research on her public service record only confirms it.
Her personal story is a good one. A great one now, I guess. But it isn’t a story that couldn’t make sense or be reasonably emulated by other Americans. In fact, it is exactly the kind of story that fits into that old “land of opportunity” narrative so many of us grew up using as our nation’s true anthem. No, Harris did not win the lottery. She methodically climbed the stairs in front of her. Each step she took was a logical next one, and she didn’t skip any along the way.
“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us but what stands before us.” Gorman continued Wednesday.
This remarkable thing happened in the midst of the terrible year of 2020: America elected its first woman vice president. She is also a woman of color, of both African and Asian descent. Most of us see these things as features, not bugs. I view her education at Howard University in Washington, DC, a historically black university, instead of the exhausting string of Ivy League grads who seem to dominate the highest levels of government as another feature. She went to law school at University of California, Hastings College of Law, which doesn’t mean much to this non-lawyer from east of the Mississippi River. But to a woman who became the district attorney of San Francisco where Hastings is located, it makes perfect sense. Again: feature.
The poem continues,
“…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…”
The drama of recent months stole part of this moment from us. The historic nature of Harris’ ascent has lurked in the background of a historically challenging time. Having achieved resolution of the lingering questions that all presidential campaigns ask, and that the losing campaign could not seem to quit “asking” this time, we can now begin celebrating the moment properly.
Gorman’s stirring words help us: “So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left with.”
Can we do that as part of our celebration? Harris’ mere arrival is worthy of reverence, but meaningful accomplishment will take more. Gorman’s challenge acknowledges the lack of inevitability of accomplishment that merely transitioning into power will bring. That will take a unified national effort. Gorman’s use of the words “us” and “we” throughout her verse is important.
I see both of our new first and second families with a comfortable sense of familiarity. Harris’ blended family looks like mine through her role as a stepmother of two young adults. It is something my own wife is experiencing right now too. I see Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, and his two children loving her for who she is at home, like my kids do their own stepmom.
Harris and her family are special in that they look, act and sound more like more of us than the team that preceded them. That connection has real value when the quest for unity and truth are the primary challenges of the day.
Gorman concludes: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Harris is the first. As big a deal as it is, her place at the top is soothing more than it is stunning. So, look directly at her and appreciate her light. It will make it easier for us to also be it.