Picture Amanda Gorman reciting “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. It’s easy to envision her in her golden yellow coat, her black braids crowned in a red diadem, her expression radiant as her fingertips dance to to the music of her words. (It’s especially easy when you’re looking at her photo.)
At age 22, Amanda Gorman was the youngest poet ever to deliver a poem at a U.S. presidential inauguration. She performed in front of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayar, and other dignitaries, while more than 40 million viewers watched.
I’m not gonna lie and say that I’m not scared. But I’m gratified in the fact that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but acting despite that fear. There comes this knowledge and this faith that I was made for this moment.> Amanda Gorman, Vogue.com
Now picture Gwendolyn Bennett at age 22, reciting “To Usward,” at the New York Civic Club dinner on March 21st, 1924, an event hailed as the official debut or “coming out party” of Harlem artists, a veritable inauguration of the “New Negro” movement—a moment when white patrons began to take notice of the renaissance of modern Black cultural expression already well underway.1Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola, Introduction, Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018), p. 10) “The goal was to announce the black cultural awakening to the white men and women with the money and clout to support its artists,” Cheryl Wall explains.2“Histories and Heresies: Engendering the Harlem Renaissance.” Meridians, Vol. 2, No 1 (2001), p. 61 The Civic Club “was the only upper crust New York club without color or sex restrictions, where Afro-American intellectuals and prominent white liberals forgathered.”3David Levering Lewis. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981, p. 91.
Envisioning Bennett at the Civic Club dinner requires more imagination, as there aren’t any photos or recordings of the event. You must conjure the scene from a black-and-white photograph of her taken the same year, standing at an entrance to Columbia University, arms crossed and head tilted in a wry smile. Is her expression defiant or self-protective? Flirtatious or skeptical? The photo doesn’t tell.
At 22, Gwendolyn Bennett was a rising star of the New Negro youth movement. She recited “To Usward” before more than a hundred publishers, editors, artists, and writers, including distinguished Black authors W. E. B. Du Bois, Georgia Douglas Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and Alain Locke, as well as white literary influencers H. L. Mencken and Eugene O’Neill. The poem was simultaneously published in the Crisis and Opportunity, the leading race magazines of the era, extending the poem’s reach to more than 100,000 readers.
How did she feel, performing her poem at such an important event, before so many dignitaries and cultural influencers? She must have felt a lot like Amanda Gorman on the occasion of her inaugural poem: excited, scared, yet purposeful, knowing that she was participating in a defining moment in Black history.
For Gorman, that moment is a contemporary renaissance of Black artistic expression:
What’s been exciting for me is I get to absorb and to live in that creation I see from other African-American artists that I look up to. But then I also get to create art and participate in that historical record. We’re seeing it in fashion, we’re seeing it in the visual arts. We’re seeing it in dance, we’re seeing it in music. In all the forms of expression of human life, we’re seeing that artistry be informed by the Black experience. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than that.”> Amanda Gorman, Interview with Michelle Obama, Time.com
Bennett was just as excited to take part in the “euphoric ethos” of the Harlem Renaissance:4Sandra Y. Govan, Gwendolyn Bennett: Portrait of an Artist Lost. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1980. p. 7.
It was fun to be alive and be part of this—like nothing else I’ve ever been a part of. Yet I’ve had a full and interesting life. But there’s been nothing exactly like this. People succeeded and went on to teach at Fisk or this place or the other place and had wonderful lives after that but nothing like this particular life in which you saw the same people over and over again. You were always glad to see them. You always had an exciting time when you were with them.> Gwendolyn Bennett, Interview with Sandra Govan5Sandra Y. Govan. Gwendolyn Bennett: Portrait of an Artist List. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1980, p. 119.
Like Gorman, Bennett was energized by a sense of community and empowered by the knowledge that Black artists were taking part in a cultural renaissance and making history together.
You can feel the awareness of making history in their inaugural poems, both of which speak for “us,” a collective of Americans on the cusp of a democratic potential emerging but not yet fulfilled. Read Bennett’s “To Usward” aloud and listen for the sounds of social change:
Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” manifests the same historical awareness. Watch and listen for echoes between the two poems:
Both poems express awareness of an advent of a new era, figured as an organic rebirth or flowering. Bennett writes of “the pushing of our growth,” while Gorman proclaims “the new dawn [that] blooms as we free it.”
Both poems catalog a diverse cast of voices and perspectives, with Bennett calling for any song “that’s different from the rest,” and Gorman “committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”
Both poets validate the demands and concerns of young people. Bennett underscores “the urgency of Youth’s behest,” while Gorman reminds us that “our inaction and inertia / will be the inheritance of the next generation.”
Although Bennett’s controlling metaphor of a “Chinese ginger jar” may seem cringily Orientalist today, Nina Miller points out that it echoes “a key trope of international modernism: Imagism’s dense and luminous ‘oriental’ object.” But, Miller asks, “why not a metaphor of Africa to articulate the call ‘to usward,’ not least of all because Africa was as rich a vein of modernist meaning as China?”6Nina Miller. Making Love Modern: the Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary Women. Oxford University Press, 1999., pp. 229-230. The preference for an Orientalist image over a Primitivist one reflects the cultural imperative for African American artists to demonstrate refinement and restraint in order to combat racist stereotypes of intellectual inferiority and moral laxness. Reflecting a worldly outlook and drawing upon modernist tropes, the ginger jar both fulfills the uplift ideology of the elder African American leadership and reflects the avant-garde aesthetics of younger generation of artists.
If Bennett’s metaphor feels dated today, her inventive wordplay snaps with some of the same sound patterns that energize Gorman’s contemporary poetics:
- Bennett uses rhyme to transform “sloth” into “growth” and “dearth” into “birth,” excavating “smug identity” to uncover the roots of a stronger, more communal “entity.”
- Gorman transforms “beast” into “peace” and “harm” into “harmony,” unearthing “just-ice” buried beneath “what just is.”
Deploying word alchemy and archeology to envision the future they want to behold, both Bennett and Gorman display “a supreme faith in art’s redemptive power”7Nina Miller, Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York’s Literary Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 232.—a belief that poetry has the power to transform individuals, communities, and nations.
There are differences, of course. We don’t have any photos or recordings of Bennett’s performance. As a young, Black, female poet in the early twentieth century, she didn’t have access to a national stage, TV broadcast, Twitter storm, or even a book contract. She didn’t have Oprah offering to buy her a new outfit or Michelle Obama interviewing her for Time.com. Nor did she have the range of poetic precedents that Gorman draws upon—parallel structure learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. (“we lift our gazes not to what stands between us/ but what stands before us”), repetition echoing Maya Angelou (“we will rise”), and rhythmic patterns adapted from Hip Hop and Spoken Word.
Yet in other ways, Bennett and Gorman were climbing the same hill, surmounting the same intersectional barriers against Black girls performing in public, obstacles Gorman describes in her interview with Michelle Obama:
Speaking in public as a Black girl is already daunting enough, just coming onstage with my dark skin and my hair and my race—that in itself is inviting a type of people that have not often been welcomed or celebrated in the public sphere. Beyond that, as someone with a speech impediment, that impostor syndrome has always been exacerbated because there’s the concern, Is the content of what I’m saying good enough? And then the additional fear, Is the way I’m saying it good enough?> Amanda Gorman, Interview with Michelle Obama, Time.com
If someone as talented and celebrated as Amanda Gorman suffers imposter syndrome, imagine the strength it took for Gwendolyn Bennett “to believe in herself as an artist, writer, and woman worthy of love” a century earlier, with fewer role models and resources to draw upon, and the whole white world telling her she was less than human.8Maureen Honey, Foreword, Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings, ed. by Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. p xii. Committed to the project of racial uplift, Bennett put up a brave front, but she expressed throbbing doubts in her letters and diaries. She commiserated with her friend Langston Hughes about “the trials of young artists and especially black ones,”9letter to Langston Hughes, n.d. (c. 1926), Paris, France.Langston Hughes Papers. James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. and confided to fellow poet Countee Cullen:
I am about as convinced as I can be that I cant write. I feel so close to real discouragement. If I could only have one thing accepted, I might feel better. Damn! It’s a long road and a rocky one.> Gwendolyn Bennett, letter to Countee Cullen, Jan. 14, 1926, Paris, France.10Reprinted in Heroine of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Gwendolyn Bennett’s Selected Writings, ed. by Belinda Wheeler and Louis J. Parascandola. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. pp. 200-201.
Bennett wrote those letters from Paris, where she was living for the year on an art scholarship sponsored by her sorority. Alone, homesick, and struggling to establish herself as an artist in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language, she had no idea the long road ahead would be far rockier than she even imagined.