Homage to Amanda Gorman: Shine on!


American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

On a day that still tingles with the electric pulse of the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, I remain moved and thrilled by the ringing cadences of Amanda Gorman’s finale poem—not only her brave and lyrical words, but also the grace with which she delivered them. 

Afterwards, I wondered: how did the Biden team find this gem? I discovered that it was Professor Jill Biden who recommended Ms. Gorman to the Inauguration planners after encountering her at a 2017 reading

Does it make a difference that Amanda Gorman is a Harvard University graduate? Certainly she seemed at home in the rarified circle of the Capitol, as she did in a 2019 poetry performance for a ForbesWomen conference

She has a poetic passion that is at once gritty and polished. She speaks of herself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves,” but also as someone who is part of a redemptive “we,” Americans who will “rise” to “rebuild, reconcile and recover” our country.  

“Being American,” Gorman says, “is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

There is no point in lingering in the past, Gorman insists: “We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.”

She imagines what America might be if we were able to “merge mercy with might, and might with right,” so that “love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.” 

Today I am wondering, can America live up to the challenge and the promise of Amanda Gorman’s “bold, fierce and free” vision? 

Can we merge mercy, might and justice to pave the way for love, rather than hatred and division, to become the legacy our generation will leave to the next? 


I have been a professor of comparative literature and media arts at a college for gifted students for more than a quarter-century. I teach courses like “Writing to Right the World,” “Women Write the World,” and “Leadership, Writing & Public Speaking for Social and Environmental Justice.”

I have met many young people who have the passion and even the talent of Amanda Gorman—but few who are able to offer their inspired visions to the world with such grace and aplomb. 

In these latter years of my time in the professoriate, I find myself no longer interested in teaching young people how to write proper academic essays. Yes, I want them to know how to do serious research, and to cite their sources responsibly. But what interests me most is developing three key capacities in young people: 

  • the ability to articulate interesting questions and follow these questions through to interesting, often unexpected outcomes; 
  • the confidence to write in their own personal voice, allowing their idiosyncracies of expression to shine through; 
  • and the poise and polish to present their ideas orally, whether live or on camera, in the strongest way possible. 

I encourage students to explore the intertwining dimensions of the personal, political and planetary in their writing; to write with both a hyper-local and a broadly global awareness; and to see how their personal experiences are conditioned by politics and place—as is every piece of writing, though for too long we have been taught to take the white European male perspective as the invisible, “neutral” default. 

Like Greta Thunberg and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Amanda Gorman speaks for many other young people, no less passionate but perhaps less able to articulate and convey their passions on a prominent public stage. 

The more those few exceptional ones step forward and lead the way, the more inspired, invigorated and enlivened their contemporaries will become, and the brighter their collective lights will shine out in the world.


It was a brilliant move for Joe Biden, the oldest incoming President of the United States, to invite powerful young women to grace his Inauguration. From Amanda Gorman to Lady Gaga and J-Lo, youthful energy blazed forth on the steps of the Capitol on 1/20/21, insisting that America must live up to its promise. 

While Joe himself looked back to Lincoln in calling for unity, young Amanda Gorman looked forward, proclaiming that “our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful” from all the challenges that have beset us of late. 

She closed with a challenge: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

I agree with Amanda: we must be the light that we want to see in the world. We must shine for our friends and neighbors, for our families and loved ones, for all the future generations yet to come.

In the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness can’t drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

It’s our time, now, to be the light. 

Thank you, Amanda Gorman, for illuminating the path forward with such brilliance, poise and clarity. Shine on! 

American Carnage

January 7, 2021

I feel today like I did on November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump stole the US presidential election. 

Dumbfounded that such a criminal act could be allowed to proceed in the USA. 

Shocked and disgusted by the coarse hatred and stupidity on display in the crowds that supported him—the ones who chanted “Lock’er up” about Hillary Clinton, and put journalists in cages in the center of packed arenas, to be jeered at as though they were in some kind of stocks. 

Those same folks turned out in droves for Donald’s last stand in DC yesterday. And they must have had accomplices among the Capitol Police and other law enforcement units, who spectacularly not only failed to prevent the mob from overrunning the Capitol, but were caught on camera practically bowing as they let the criminals in. 

It was chilling to hear one of those self-styled “American patriots” speaking to an NPR reporter on the grounds of the Capitol building, declaring that lawmakers opposed to Donald Trump ought to be strung up and hung on gallows then and there. He went on to sketch out his vision of gallows in groups of four, ready to break the necks of anyone opposed to Trump.

American carnage, indeed. 

Shock and alarm beamed around the world, as people in other countries saw the unthinkable violence taking place in the heart of America, the so-called “leader of the free world.”

Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “freedom,” doesn’t it. 

For Trump and his brainwashed followers, it means the freedom to bear arms anywhere and everywhere, including schools, malls and halls of government. 

It means the freedom to insist that up is down, that wrong is right, that losing is winning, and that anyone who disagrees with you should be hung. 

The blind compliance of the Trump/Fox/Newsmax/QAnon followers is terrifying. 

We’ve seen it before, in the legions who followed Hitler and sent their neighbors to the gas chambers.

We saw it in the Cultural Revolution in China, where brainwashed followers committed violence and murder, often against their own family members, in the name of their fearless leader Mao. 

We saw it with the Hutus in Rwanda, who murdered their neighbors the Tutsis by the millions when the call came over the radio to do so. 

This is human nature, it seems. A savage mob mentality, lurking beneath the veneer of civilization, can be easily manipulated, at viral speed, by the dark lords of social media.

It is the job of those of us who have the capacity to discern truth from lies to continue to hold that line. No, the 2020 election was not stolen. Yes, Joe Biden legitimately won. 

But how can we heal a society so broken, a social fabric so frayed?

The US is on the brink of chaos. 

We saw it in microcosm yesterday. Imagine if whoever is masterminding this (and I don’t believe it’s Trump, he’s not intelligent enough. Steve Bannon, perhaps?) was able to bring the Trump mob out in multiple cities across the nation simultaneously. Imagine if sympathizers in the police forces, and perhaps even the military, stood by as violence erupted. Spin out that scenario and you see the clear outlines of a civil war that could only be quelled by serious military intervention of the kind that we are used to seeing in other countries. Think Baghdad, 2004. 

There are many today who are calling for Trump to be ousted from the White House immediately, using the 25thAmendment. My fear is that the toady Pence would then turn around and issue him a blanket pardon, which would prevent his future prosecution. Because make no mistake, Trump will be a menace until he is safely behind bars, without access to the Internet. Even then, he’ll become a folk hero, a rallying cry for his mob forevermore. 

It’s hard to know the best course of action for sane heads in America to take today. 

For those of us on the sidelines, watching and listening as the actors strut and fret their time upon the stage, these terrifying, sickening times must just be endured. I wish I could pull a Rip Van Winkle and go to sleep until it’s all over. 

But no. We are here for a reason. To hold firm to our belief in truth—yes, real, actual truth; to insist on justice for all—not just white supremacist fascists; to proclaim that might is not and never will be right. 

If there are angels watching over this sad, sick planet, I pray that they will strengthen the better nature in each one of us.

We surely need all the help we can get today.

New Year’s 2021: Be the Light

Greetings, 2021. 

My prayer is that you will be the year in which we come to appreciate our interconnections with each other and all things on Earth and in the heavens. 

May you be the year in which we came to understand and value the importance of health, and to see that as we are all interconnected, one cannot be healthy while others are sick. 

May we embrace the entire Earth community as our tribe, recognizing that peace and plenty in one part of the globe cannot be lasting if others are starving and in strife. 

May we remember the sensitive arts of diplomacy, negotiation and mutual respect. 

May we remember how to listen deeply, how to open our hearts to strive for understanding, even when we are confronted with radical difference. 

2020 taught us the hard way that climate disruption is well underway, accompanied by fires, storms, melting ice and parched or flooded farmlands. We learned the hard way that the globalization of human civilization has opened pathways for pandemics as well as for profits. It has become clear that our favorite toy, the Internet, has the power to connect us as never before, but also to shred our trust in one another, undermining the stability of our social and political systems. 

As we step gingerly into this new year, 2021, and this new decade begins to unfurl, may each of us find the center of calm in our own hearts, and radiate that out into the world. I know this is not easy when it seems like everything we have known is under assault; when we are separated from our loved ones; when we are faced with disrespect, violence, hunger and fear. 

But for those of us who have our immediate needs met, who have the luxury of sitting on a safe, if crumbling, shore—for us, there is a simple, but not inconsequential practice we can undertake for ourselves and for others.

We have simply to center ourselves, open our hearts, and radiate our love and compassion out into the world. 

Buddhism calls this tonglen. Other religions call it prayer. It needs no name, nor the seal of any established religion. Each of us has a direct connection to the steady light of the sacred, which grows brighter as we focus on it and call it forth into the world. 

Each of us can be the love we want to see in the world. We can embody and radiate the divine love we seek, and become a channel for the beauty all around us. 

May the glow of our collective light form a healing matrix around our beleaguered planet, harmonizing with the divine light that connects us to the cosmos and all the other stars, suns and planets out there. 

May 2021 be the year we realize our profound interconnection with all that is. 

May the light that animates each of us strengthen and protect all of us. 

Namaste. 

New Year’s morning 2021. Venus aloft. Photo by J. Browdy.
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