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Poet Amanda Gorman celebrates the gift of Blackness for Juneteenth

todayJune 18, 2022 12

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    Poet Amanda Gorman celebrates the gift of Blackness for Juneteenth Tarik Moody

Updated June 17, 2022 at 1:13 PM ET
Amanda Gorman was the youngest inaugural poet when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 at the age of 22.
Danny Williams/Sun Literary Arts

Growing up in Los Angeles, Amanda Gorman’s family would mark Juneteenth by going to an African American history museum or celebrating and reflecting with her church and community.

For the second year, the U.S. government on Sunday will observe the holiday, which marks the effective end of chattel slavery following the U.S. Civil War. Gorman, the first national youth poet laureate, wonders how that federal recognition will change celebrations.

“African Americans and also communities beyond that have been celebrating Juneteenth for generations without it being federalized … it wasn’t something that we need permission to look at,” the first national youth poet laureate said in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition ahead of Sunday’s holiday. “We are celebrating African American liberty, but a liberty that has typically come delayed, a liberty that was not promised but something that we continuously have to fight for … including today.”

Those struggles against injustice are at the heart of much of the poetry penned by Gorman, who at 22 was the youngest inaugural poet when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration last year.

It was an inauguration held under tight security just two weeks after a mob of supporters of the previous president, Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a day of deadly white supremacist violence.

This year’s Juneteenth takes place in the shadow of televised hearings by the House committee investigating that insurrection, as well as a mass shooting that targeted a Black community in Buffalo, N.Y., last month.

“If you’re paying attention to the African-American condition, it’s not surprising,” Gorman said of the attacks. “It’s a symptom of violence, of intolerance, of hatred, of terrorism that we’ve seen inflicted against African Americans for centuries.”

She hopes making Juneteenth a federal holiday provides it “a larger claim on the American consciousness” — and an opportunity to reflect on “the complicated and treacherous path that we often have to walk to guarantee liberty for ourselves and others.”

Gorman says her writing is meant to highlight both the injustices and the hope and solutions along that path.

“Despite all that blood and red and anger, there have been audacious dreamers in the African American community whose imaginations and hopes made our country arrive at something that is both larger and better than what we started as,” she said.

Black artists, writers and fashion designers have been among the leaders in responding to the latest racial reckoning — an unfinished one — triggered by police killings in America.

Gorman drew parallels between this generation of artists and the Harlem Renaissance, which turned the New York neighborhood into a cultural destination in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“[They] are using their creativity not just for opulence or aesthetics or something that looks or sounds good, but something that speaks to real movement and momentum and social change,” Gorman said

As a poet, she sees her role in that effort as speaking “the language of the people.”

“The work of the poet is often the same work of democracy building,” Gorman said. “It’s to equalize, it’s to connect, to engage, never to oppress.”

To mark Juneteenth, Gorman read on NPR “Fury and Faith,” a poem from her poetry collection Call Us What We Carry. The title of that book, she said, came from her understanding that “we all can be vessels of both hurt and hope at the same time.”

Her readings themselves are an art form built on the call-and-response traditions of Black sermons and protest chants. They are incantatory performances, framed with illustrative hand gestures, that deliver their punch through the time-tested devices of rhythm, rhyme and antithesis.

“I will spend the rest of my life unpacking the gift that Blackness has given my poetry,” she said. “I’ve kind of absorbed a lot of the hallmarks of Black culture into my poetry. So whether that’s improvisation, rhyme, rhythm, my kind of fashion sense and the way that I’m always wearing kind of braids or my afro on stage, the idea that the audience isn’t a viewer but a participant in my poetry.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

On Sunday for only the second year, the U.S. as a nation celebrates the effective end of chattel slavery following the Civil War. Juneteenth is the country’s newest federal holiday. But what lies beneath this day of celebration, reflection and resilience? Poet Amanda Gorman explores that in her poems, highlighting the lived experience of African Americans. And she joins me now. Welcome, Amanda.

AMANDA GORMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So I want to talk about Juneteenth and what it means to you.

GORMAN: For me, it’s a day of celebration, of honoring my heritage of my ancestors. And it’s also a day of deep reflection of the opposition in that where we are celebrating African American liberty, a liberty that was not promised, but something we continuously have to fight for.

FADEL: Including today.

GORMAN: Including today. Absolutely.

FADEL: What’s the significance of it being federalized?

GORMAN: African Americans and also communities beyond that have been celebrating Juneteenth for generations without it being federalized, that it wasn’t something that we need permission to look at. It has everything to do with who and what our nation is and what we owe each other, which is liberty, life, joy and freedom.

FADEL: What about in today’s context? As we commemorate Juneteenth, we’re also watching the hearings about the January 6 Capitol attack. A mass shooter went looking to kill Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., last month.

GORMAN: Despite all that blood and red and anger, there have been audacious dreamers in the African American community whose imaginations and hopes made our country arrive at something that is both larger and better than what we started as.

FADEL: “Fury And Faith” is a poem that you originally wrote after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, after Breonna Taylor’s killing and Ahmaud Arbery and this reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement. But at the center of this reckoning, and when we look at our history in this country, are Black artists, African American artists, poets, visual artists, performers, fashion designers. Is there something different about today than, say, the Harlem Renaissance, for example, when you look at Black art?

GORMAN: There are extremely similar ties between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power Arts Movement. And today, where we have, I think, a generation of Black artists who are using their creativity not just for opulence or aesthetics or something that looks or sounds good, but something that speaks to real movement and momentum and social change.

FADEL: What is the role of the poet today in the U.S., in your view?

GORMAN: Oh, how much time do we have?

FADEL: (Laughter).

GORMAN: I think I literally wrote an essay about this four years ago in college. So my teacher was like, what is going on with Amanda’s brain?

FADEL: (Laughter).

GORMAN: The work of the poet is often the same work of democracy building. It’s to equalize, it’s to connect, it’s to engage, never to oppress.

FADEL: How much of your style, when you read your poetry, is inspired by the call and response culture that’s prevalent in Black churches, jazz, protest?

GORMAN: Oh, my goodness. I think so much of it, to the point that I think I will spend the rest of my life unpacking the gift that Blackness has given my poetry. I think I’ve absorbed a lot of the hallmarks of Black culture into my poetry. So whether that’s improvisation, rhyme, rhythm, my kind of fashion sense in the way that I’m always wearing braids or my afro on stage.

FADEL: The poem comes from your collection “Call Us What We Carry.” Can you talk to me about the meaning behind the title of that collection?

GORMAN: I got thinking of this idea of how we all can be vessels of both hurt and hope at the same time.

(Reading) “Fury And Faith.” You will be told this is not a problem, not your problem. You will be told now is not the time for change to begin, told that we cannot win. But the point of protest isn’t winning. It’s holding fast to the promise of freedom, even when fast victory is not promised, meaning we cannot stand up to police if we cannot cease policing our imagination, convincing our communities that this won’t work when the work hasn’t even begun, that this can wait when we’ve already waited out a thousand suns.

By now, we understand that white supremacy and the despair it demands are as destructive as any disease. So when you’re told that your rage is reactionary, remind yourself that rage is our right. It teaches us it is time to fight in the face of injustice. Not only is anger natural but necessary because it helps carry us to our destination.

Our goal is never revenge, just restoration, not dominance, just dignity, not fear, just freedom, just justice. Whether we prevail is not determined by all the challenges that are present but by all the change that is possible. And though we are unstoppable if we ever feel we might fail, if we be fatigued and frail when our fire can no longer be fueled by fury, we will always be fortified by this faith found in the anthem, the vow, all Black lives matter, no matter what. Black lives are worth living, worth defending, worth every struggle.

We owe it to the fallen to fight. But we owe it to ourselves to never stay kneeling when the day calls us to stand together. We envision a land that is liberated, not lawless. We create a future that is free, not flawless. Again and again, over and over, we will stride up every mountainside, magnanimous and modest. We will be protected and served by a force that is honored and honest. This is more than protest. It’s a promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Amanda Gorman’s poem “Fury And Faith” from her collection “Call Us What We Carry.” Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: Tarik Moody

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