The poet's piece, 'The Hill We Climb,' rightly acknowledged the rocky path that lies ahead for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in on Wednesday, and millions of citizens across the United States tuned in to watch the inauguration ceremony from their homes. Due to the pandemic, American flags dotted the National Mall in lieu of the crowds of spectators who would otherwise be in attendance. While the swearing-in of the first woman of color as Vice President is a rather historic occasion, and Biden's official entrance into the White House as President can feel like a sigh of relief, there was one star of the inauguration: Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate. To me, she was the only reason to tune in to the inauguration at all.
As a woman of color myself, I am tired of the social media posts celebrating Harris's win as a "progressive watershed moment." Moving beyond identity politics (a phrase I personally cringe at), her track record has not reflected the potential of her inter-racial background. Harris, as a district attorney and then the state of California’s attorney general, was urged on more than one occasion to embrace criminal justice reforms that would make the system fairer, particularly for young Black men. She opposed them and, even worse, stayed silent under numerous circumstances. Notably, she fiercely protected laws that to this day uphold wrongful convictions secured through official misconduct, including evidence tampering, false testimony, and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors. Her lack of intersectionality and internalized anti-Blackness, as a Tamil woman, represent much that remains of Old America. Given her past, I can only envision her potential America to be a politer version of Trump's.
It is against this backdrop that Gorman shone for me. She did not hide behind false notions of "unity." Her poem was a rebuke of the complacency that White supremacist ideas of "decency" and niceties perpetuate. Justice is not about who is most polite to their oppressors. Rather, as the poet laureate pointed out, it is the raging desire to hold them accountable for their actions. "It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit," she recited. "It's the past we step into and how we repair it." So, Mr. Biden and Mrs. Harris, the unity you call for cannot come without a critical look at how our systems of injustice, and indeed those who allowed its most vile mechanisms to turn their cogs—no matter the color of the skin or their gender, hurt our country's most marginalized.
In the midst of a public health crisis and election results that are given far too much weight for how light they really are, the inauguration was for me and dozens of others more of the same—but for Gorman's words. I can only hope that the new administration will remember her words as they write the country's future (and become unduly tied to its history): "We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens." What America truly needs to spur unity is a swift and bold reparation of its historical wrongs, many of which were committed long before Trump entered office. To me, Biden and Harris must do more than restore decency to American democracy in order to outshine Gorman. They must rebuild it on the sturdy foundation of accountability and equity.