In Defense of Amanda Gorman
The world was introduced to US National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman on January 20th this year, when she read her Inaugural Poem The Hill We Climb to commemorate the swearing in of the 46th President and the 49th Vice President of the United States of America.
I don’t know Amanda Gorman, but I know one of the organizations that has played a pivotal role in her development as a poet, WriteGirl. I know WriteGirl because I volunteered as a mentor for them when I lived in LA in the early 2000s, and even worked for the organization for a while as a grant writer.
Personally, I think every American would feel proud of Amanda Gorman: she is the product of America’s toughest realities (a black girl, born & raised in Watts by a single mom) and it’s best opportunities (college scholarship, acceptance to Harvard) to come to embody the one thing the country has always stood for at it’s very heart: promise.
I know, though, that Gorman holds a very special place of pride for WriteGirl Executive Director Keren Taylor, Associate Director Allison Deegan, and all the mentors and mentees of WriteGirl, and deservedly so. I follow Keren on Twitter, and it’s been a joy to watch her cheer Gorman on. Until I saw this tweet:
Because of course after the Inaugural Poem, Gorman has been praised far and wide as being a talented and gifted writer — which she no doubt is — but Taylor is right: that praise attributes Gorman’s accomplishments to a trait beyond her own doing, to something beyond her own autonomy, and dismisses the very hard work, focus and perseverance Gorman has dedicated to her craft and her path.
Gorman herself has clearly demonstrated to the world how much words matter. And in terms of women’s careers and drive and accomplishments, those words matter even more.
Every time a woman or girl is given the praise “talented” or “gifted”, it removes agency from the actor and literally takes away the success a woman or girl has worked hard for, erases all her preparation and study and practice in a single stroke, attributing it only to, basically, luck.
But when we do this, we place a woman’s accomplishments on the same shelf of being pretty, or born into a wealthy family, or — if we follow this line of logic — sleeping with the right people. As though a woman is never capable of excelling in her education and applying that education to her career, holding fast to her own drive and vision through struggle and detractors and the general obstacles of life, to reach her goal.
It relegates her to being a fluke of fate, rather than a norm on the same footing as any hardworking, successful boy or man.
Shortly after the Inauguration, it was announced that Amanda Gorman would be performing her poetry at the Superbowl to honor three US citizens the NFL has named as honorary captains for their service throughout the pandemic, an educator, a nurse, and a Marine veteran. It’s the first time in history a poet would be featured to kick off the game.
Immediately after making this announcement, Gorman ran defense for herself, anticipating detractors, criticism, and (probably) a lot worse:
The fact that Gorman felt a need to “be the first to say” that this latest honor was a result of her hard work rather than a benefit of fame illustrates how deep this conditioning goes, as she acts out every girl’s, every woman’s knee-jerk reaction to being successful at anything: please don’t hate me, I really did work hard for this!
Screenwriter and WriteGirl mentor Clare Sera spelled it out when backing Gorman up:
Again, that Sera felt the need to defend Gorman shows how deeply ingrained the taking away of women’s hard work — of which women have a right to be proud — actually is.
While I’ve seen quite a bit of evidence of vitriolic accusations of nepotism and privilege being lobbied at boys and young men (especially in the #MarchforOurLives movement), the attribution is more often part of a formula for success that is celebrated: he spun his privilege into more privilege, clever boy!
And while being talented and gifted are certainly words used to describe male artists of every genre, they are used with a breathless reverence (think Jimi Hendrix) rather than a vehicle for dismissing the hard work that put that talent center stage.
Likewise, we very, very rarely look at a male celebrity and assume he slept his way into his position, even though we’ve discovered this to sometimes be true in the wake of #MeToo in Hollywood and the music industry.
So why do we do it to women and girls? Why do we take away their hard work, their dedication and commitment, their struggle and their drive that can take “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 reduce all of that to a single, weighted word, a genetic trait, an accident of birth that has so very little to do with the education, the toil and the perseverance of the very human who has inherited it?
Gorman spelled out the hard work she put into “The Hill We Climb” in her post-Inauguration interview with Anderson Cooper. In composing the poem, she read every Inaugural Poem before hers; she researched the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Fredredick Douglass, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr; she even interviewed two former Inaugural poets; and when everything felt upended by the Capitol coup on January 6, she studied Twitter to do what good artists do: to find the pulse, and to turn that pulse into a full beat that drives her message. It was work.
Later in the interview, Cooper gushes, “your mother must be so proud of you.” Gorman is 22 years old, a legal adult in the United States. She can drink, she can buy cigarettes, she has finished university. She can marry without parental consent in every state of the Union and all its territories, she can bear a child without the stigma of being a teen mom, she can buy a house. She can vote (now in her second election), she can serve in the military, fly planes, drop bombs, shoot guns, kill, and be killed, in service to her country.
She can deliver an Inaugural poem.
But instead, Cooper thinks her mom must be very proud. He reduces her, basically infantilizes her with this statement. And Gorman may have a close and loving relationship with her mom; she may really appreciate her mother being recognized as part of what has made Gorman Gorman; but she also graciously corrects him, “I say I’m proud of us” because it takes a whole village, whom she names: WriteGirl, Urban Word—and herself, because the success includes the hard work and participation of the poet, the woman, the human Amanda Gorman.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
After a lifetime of active feminism, I survived a violent attack on my own life (check out my full story here (#triggerwarning). I responded by earning a black belt in Ninjutsu, and developing a self defense program that addresses the realistic needs of women and girls in physical safety as well as social cost. Learn more about it here.