Posted by Hailey Cullen, Poetry Reader for Issue 9.2
On a gloomy January day, before the start of my 2021 Spring Semester at SUNY Geneseo, I sat down to watch the inauguration of Joe Biden. There were many highlights (Michelle Obama’s fabulous monochromatic outfit was one), but I found myself especially moved by Amanda Gorman’s role in the ceremony. America’s first national Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
I was initially captivated by Gorman’s rhythmic articulation and poised disposition. Upon closer examination, I noticed the sundry hard-hitting and cleverly-written lines that call for unity and justice among the American people. In one example, Gorman plays with her words, noting that “what just is / isn’t always just-ice.” In another line, she appears to reference the storming of the Capitol, which had only occurred fourteen days prior, “We’ve seen a force that would…destroy our country if it meant delaying / democracy.” Gorman’s poem, with its appeal for solidarity and justice for the oppressed, is a profound example of writing as activism.
During a global health crisis, national unrest regarding police brutality, and the 2020 presidential election, I couldn’t think of a time when Gorman’s words would be more relevant or necessary. Her poem is notably hopeful, with lines like, “We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west” echoing the words of Maya Angelou’s inspiring poem “Still I Rise.” I found this hopefulness strengthening and rousing. I felt a renewed sense of purpose towards my goal of being an antiracist member of society and future educator. And I wasn’t alone in my response to “The Hill We Climb.” Members of prominent literary circles, like Yona Harvey and other eminent figures like Lin-Manuel Miranda and Malala Yousafzai expressed similar feelings of inspiration after listening. Both my reaction and the general public’s reception the poem illustrate the powerful potential of writing as a tool for activism and social justice.
Words and writing have held a pivotal place in some of the most significant social justice movements in American history. Imagine the civil rights movement without Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech! But what makes writing a uniquely beneficial tool for advancing social justice movements? Well, for one thing, good writers are strong communicators. They can identify and address issues clearly and comprehensively. Not only that, but writers have the ability to craft their words to appeal to their audience’s emotions. Gorman does this with her electric words like “belly of the beast,” “bronze-pounded,” and “catastrophe.” These words underscore the urgency of the issues that she addresses, effectively stirring her listeners’ emotions.
Perhaps the most compelling way that writing can inspire social action is by appealing to a wide audience. Writers have the remarkable potential to reach a broad group of people. This is a great power, but with it comes a great responsibility (yes, that was a reference to Spider-Man). Writers must be careful to not alienate readers with their agenda. As writers, we want our audience to lean in and listen, rather than feel put-off or attacked. Gorman does this brilliantly by avoiding divisive language in “The Hill We Climb” and instead emphasizes the importance of unification among the American people: “We close the divide…we must first put our differences aside.”
As someone who enjoys writing and is a member of several literary communities like Gandy Dancer, I find myself wondering about how to employ the power of writing to promote social justice issues that I am passionate about such as antiracism, feminism, and decolonizing education. I also contemplate, after a year like 2020, if all members of literary communities have a responsibility to challenge oppressive societal norms with their work. These are difficult questions, and I won’t pretend to know the answers. What I do know, is that good writing stretches readers, requiring them to think in a way they haven’t before. With my own writing, I will strive to present new ideas, or at least present ideas in a new way, in order to propel progress within my community. As members of the larger Geneseo and SUNY community, perhaps one way we can begin activism through our literary endeavors is by supporting literary magazines like Gandy Dancer. By displaying the work of previously unpublished writers, Gandy Dancer gives a voice to those with valuable contributions who may have previously been marginalized or silenced.
Gorman’s poem is just one example of the many ways in which the worlds of writing and activism blend. It is important, as writers, readers, publishers, editors, and educators, to investigate how to better our communities with our work so that we don’t just see the light, but “we’re brave enough to be it.”