Poet Amanda Gorman celebrates the gift of Blackness for Juneteenth
Updated June 17, 2022 at 1:13 PM ET
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."
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