For the millions of viewers who tuned in to watch the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, one of the most uplifting parts of the ceremony was without a doubt Gorman’s ode to American democracy. In “The Hill We Climb,” she beautifully captured the unending yet hopeful black struggle to realize its promise. Commentators compared her to famous African American women poets, who preceded Gorman on the Presidential Inauguration stage. The late Maya Angelou at President Bill Clinton’s 1992 inauguration and Elizabeth Alexander at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008. But the real predecessor of the nation’s first young poet laureate, is the foremother of American poetry, the enslaved teenaged girl from 18th century Massachusetts, Phillis Wheatley.
But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind—
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace
And hold in bondage Afric’s blameless race?
Both young poets point to the acute danger racism poses to the American experiment in republican government. At a moment when an unregenerate racist minority would destroy that experiment rather than accept equal Black citizenship, their words remain a clarion call to recommit ourselves to preserve America’s interracial democracy.