February 08, 2021

Amanda Gorman’s Sociological Imagination

Janis prince innissBy Janis Prince Inniss

The breakout star of the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris inauguration was not Biden or Harris, or even Bernie Sanders! Amanda Gorman takes that title as evidenced by the media swirling around her, her new modeling gig, and the fact that her as yet unpublished books took the top two spots on Amazon’s bestseller list the following day.

At age 22, Gorman is the youngest poet to recite poetry at a United States inauguration and is the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. In the poem she read at the inauguration, “The Hill We Climb,” I heard a sociological perspective. Therefore, I was not surprised when I learned that Gorman was a sociology major at Harvard who graduated cum laude and see how that may have shaped her poetry. My intention here is to highlight some of the sociological aspects of “The Hill We Climb.” Disclaimer: I am not an English literature professor; my intention is not to provide a definitive or literary analysis of the poem, but instead to highlight its sociological connections.

Gorman opens the poem with the following question:

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

In the new day—this new presidency, how do we move beyond a dark past?  Sociologists are adept at showing how the past shapes the present and the future; this is a theme that Gorman returns to several times in the poem. Understanding the role of our history and biography or “self and world” according to C. Wright Mills—are  important aspects of the sociological imagination.

History refers to the large societal factors that impact us as individuals, while biography is one’s personal circumstances. You might exercise your sociological imagination by asking the following question: How does the fact that you were born when and where you were shape who you are? You don’t have to ponder that for long before you recognize that either of those—the when or the where—could have immeasurable impact on one’s life chances and opportunities. Being born free versus being born enslaved, or being able to vote versus not being able to vote are but two striking examples. Given this understanding of the impact of history situates Gorman’s poem as opening with her sociological imagination.

A few lines later, Gorman brings her own and our autobiography center stage, writing:

We the successors of a country and a time
Where a skinny Black girl
descended from slaves and raised by a single mother
can dream of becoming president
only to find herself reciting for one

The lines “We the successors”… “a skinny Black girl”  indicate how the past may or may not shape her present and future—her biography. Gorman captures a more distant past, “descended from slaves,” and a recent past, “raised by a single mother.” In this way, Gorman provides social context that shapes her and us by once again providing a sociological lens to her writing.

… we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation

Our blunders become their burdens.

In the lines quoted above, Gorman points out that today’s actions are what the next generation will inherit. Sociologists understand that the current 10 fold black-white wealth gap is a result of  historical processes.

A little history lesson explains this well, and as we know is a critical aspect of the sociological imagination. After World War II, the GI Bill allowed many Americans to become home-owners—but not Blacks, even those who had served their country.  The Federal Housing Administration provided backing for home loans that made this dream available to a much wider segment of Americans; these loans allowed people to pay much lower monthly payments—making them affordable. However,  the FHA would not insure mortgages to African Americans, nor allow homes to be (re)sold to them; the US federal government explicitly segregated housing.

As Blacks tried to integrate neighborhoods, there was “white flight” and the loss of attendant businesses and higher tax bases—hollowing out many Black neighborhoods. Simply put, homes in white neighborhoods appreciated in value and those in Black neighborhoods declined. Think about what this means in terms of actual property inheritances. Many Black families had no homes to pass on, and when they did, they have not appreciated nearly as much as those in white neighborhoods. Successive generations did not have homes to inherit and are not accumulating wealth—losing out on compound interest over decades!

Given that homes are the main source of wealth of most people in the U.S, it’s clear that this kind of housing discrimination has hindered Blacks ability to accumulate wealth. Owning a home allows people to accrue equity and to take out second mortgages for education, vacations, home repairs and so on. Not owning a home has long-reaching impacts on successive generations and can have an astounding impact on “our children’s birthright.” Indeed, from a sociological (and social justice) perspective these would be seen as “burdens” that are a direct “inheritance” from “blunders.” However, Gorman predicts that the melding of “mercy with might” will “change our children’s birthright.”  

Gorman’s poem also  highlights the fact that several US norms, guidelines that tells us what is “normal” and acceptable in any given situation, are not always “just:”

We've learned that quiet isn't always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice


You should be familiar with the important concept of norms in sociology – that which is deemed normal.  In the lines above, Gorman is questioning the norms that do not support justice. Given the recent international renewed focus on racial justice, that is one area of justice which we might consider. One does not have to be trained as a sociologist to recognize injustice. However, the discipline’s focus on social stratification and examinations of how race, class, gender, sexuality impact one’s life choices and chances means that sociological data, methods, and findings help us to recognize injustices.

The poet refers to the January 6 riot at the US Capitol as “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it.” Sociologists have noted the many ways in which many “-isms” are about not wanting to share. In fact, conflict theory, can be distilled as a perspective of conflict based on groups fighting over the spoils—with ‘the haves’ not wanting to share the pie and “the have nots” trying to get a piece of the pie.

Gorman describes the project of the U.S.  as one “striving to forge a union with purpose” made up of “all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.” To me these lines are indicative of her sociological perspective, as is the hopeful note later in the poem where she predicts,  “we will rise,” “we will rebuild, reconcile and recover” and that:

every known nook of our nation and

every corner called our country,

our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,

battered and beautiful

 

These optimistic words come toward the end of the poem.  Gorman seems to envision a positive future in which the U.S. has reckoned with its long-ignored racist past, resulting in all people, “diverse people” in “every known nook” and “every corner” emerging “battered and beautiful.”

One of the challenges for sociologists as we consider a number of isms -race, class, gender and so on—is to consider how doing so enables change. The end of the poem sees a return to the “light” of “dawn,” “if only we’re brave enough to see it.” Those words are repeated for the very last line: “If only we’re brave enough to be it.” For many, being a sociologist calls us to “be it,” using our knowledge for change as, just as Amanda Gorman has.

 

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