Editor’s Note: Ashley M. Jones is a native of Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of the poetry collections REPARATIONS NOW!, dark // thing, and Magic City Gospel. She directs the Magic City Poetry Festival and teaches at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It is no secret what poetry can do. What Black poetry can do.
Audre Lorde told us this in 1977. Although she spoke specifically to women, I hope she won’t mind me saying that her words can apply to other folks, too. She wrote: “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”
And it’s true – as I watched 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read her piece, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, I felt affirmed in my belief that art is the thing that has and will keep saving us. Poetry, by which I mean the words on a page and the life-force Lorde spoke of, is part of what will help us understand, as Gorman told us, that we must reckon with “the past we step into,” that the work is in “how we repair it.”
What is so important to me, a Black Southern woman who writes her authentic truth in verse, is the incredible door Gorman is opening and will keep opening for us in poetry. As I watched her, gorgeous as she is, walking up to that inaugural podium wearing her red Prada headband like a crown, in her striking yellow coat – a sun only mirrored by the light emanating from her – I was so proud of Amanda Gorman.
I was proud to know that she would stand there, not as a mouthpiece for an administration but with her own voice against White patriarchy and oppression. I was proud that she offered celebration for the end of the last four horrific years. I was proud because she accepted the challenge of writing for this very dizzying occasion, because she spoke to the pain of living in a country which has not always been kind to us, and because she was there, visible and glowing, a young Black woman letting us know that her words matter.
Gorman affirmed my seven-year-old self, just discovering what it meant to have a voice through poetry, standing before her second grade classmates reciting “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield. She affirmed my desire to make ways for all of us to write and participate in making art without gatekeeping or exclusion. She affirmed me today, 30 years old and writing my thoughts into language and action – action that can impact my city of Birmingham or the whole nation. She affirmed the hope I have for my young students at the Alabama School of Fine Arts – that they will see themselves, already, as writers and as vital parts of our American story.
I have been, like many Americans, incensed by these last four years which were, we know, just a natural extension of the underbelly of White supremacist thought that has haunted our nation since its founding. I have been at times frustrated and afraid for my life. One change of president doesn’t erase that fear, but in her command of the inaugural stage and international attention, Gorman allowed me to take a breath and celebrate that at least this one, president-shaped roadblock to equality was gone. She brought poetry into the conversation. To hold a poet up as a vital part of this transition of power makes me hopeful.
Get our free weekly newsletter
And I cannot lie – it’s always a good day to be a Black woman, and Wednesday was no exception. I was so happy to see the many examples of Black women doing what we do so well – shining. Michelle Obama stunning in her oxblood suit and her undimmable sparkle, Vice President Harris’s eyes lit up with joy as she swore the oath administered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and of course, the spectacular Gorman speaking through that winter DC air with her words.
Maybe a poem won’t literally pass legislation or deflect a bullet from exploding in my Black body, but a poem is what makes our hearts move. It does make people think, reflect, and it can even lead to empathy. We need that. That quality of light where hopes and dreams can live is what this country needs, and you can count on the artists to keep fueling all of our movements for liberation. Thank you, Amanda Gorman, for being a brilliant example.
This op-ed has been updated to correct the year of initial publication of Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.”