Amanda Gorman Was the Light of the Inauguration

I felt numb at first, but the wisdom of someone 20 years my junior finally brought me to tears

Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman prepares to speak at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, I waited for the wave of relief to come over me. Friends were posting on Twitter and Instagram about how they hadn’t stopped crying since the morning, and how they felt hope for the first time in four years. I was desperate to feel the same.

The truth, though, was that I felt numb. Call it a defense mechanism or a trauma response to the violence and injustice of the Trump administration, call it the dull exhaustion of dealing with a deadly pandemic over this last year. But whatever the case — as the inauguration ceremony began, I felt no weight suddenly lifted, no sudden surge of optimism.

Even the joy at seeing Kamala Harris become the first woman and person of color to be vice president — an objectively incredible moment for America and feminism — was tamped down by a feeling of looming dread.

Because despite the hope of a new administration and a reprieve from the last four years of hate and ineptitude, right-wing extremism and violence did not magically disappear once Donald Trump took a plane to Mar-a-Lago. Trump brought America’s simmering racism and misogyny to the surface and made it unapologetic and emboldened — I can think of no deadlier combination. And if the insurrection at the Capitol was any indication of what’s to come, we should all be preparing ourselves for more discord in the coming months.

I know this is not what anyone wants to hear today. I know we all need a moment of respite and catharsis. But I couldn’t help but be afraid: fearful of the far-right backlash that’s to come, and worried for the safety of progressive lawmakers and leaders.

But then, as I stewed in that fear, something happened. Well, two things happened. First, I heard my 10-year-old daughter and her learning pod start to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” If that seems a little too on the nose, please know they stopped after the first verse because they couldn’t remember the words — but the sentiment was there. They wanted to feel like a part of something, and they wanted to feel like things were going to get better.

If young people — those who often have the least power and are the least listened to — can find hope in this moment, so can we.

And then I heard Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in history, speak. Her poem opened by asking, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

This acknowledgement of pain touched me, but it was the 22-year-old’s answer to the question of where to find hope that finally washed away some of that anxiety and stress: “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” And so it was the wisdom of someone 20 years my junior that finally brought me to tears.

For those of us who feel jaded and perhaps a little too beaten down, let’s remember that if young people — those who often have the least power and are the least listened to — can find hope in this moment, so can we. And if they want and need us to be that light for them going forward, we need to rise to the occasion.

There’s no fooling ourselves about the challenges to come; there are many. But we don’t have to meet them with fear or dread. And while I’m not quite over the stress of the last four years, I’m also ready to heed Gorman’s call. Let’s meet tomorrow, and do our best to be the light.

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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