Throughout ‘The Hill We Climb’ readers will encounter allusions to contemporary society in the United States, recent economic, social, and political issues, all through the perspective of the poet herself. The poem was first read at the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States on January 20th, 2021. Gorman acknowledges herself in the piece as a “skinny black girl” who “found herself reciting for” a president. This occasional poem follows others written and read at five previous inaugurations.
Explore The Hill We Climb
From the beginning to the end of the poem, Gorman uses images of light and darkness, hope and fear, to describe the two opposing sides of America, those who want to divide and those who want to unify. Her image of the country is not one that’s defeated or failed, but one that’s still on its way to being what its rhetoric already suggests it is. She seeks to inspire hope in those listening that a better day is dawning and that better times are ahead. In the concluding sections, the poet asks that “we,” American citizens and anyone listening to her read, be brave enough to “see” and “be” the light/hope that’s coming.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The Hill We Climb,’ the poet engages with themes of the future and past, as well as hope. The latter is the primary theme at the heart of the poem and what she wants readers and listeners to walk away from the piece feeling. She returns several times to the image of light/darkness and how America is stepping out of the “shade” and turning towards the light. She’s careful to remind the reader that this isn’t an easy path, things don’t change overnight. But, if one reaches out, puts down their arms, and allows the beauty of the country to come through, then the future is going to be a far better one than it could’ve been.
Literary and Historical Context
This piece was performed at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States on January 20th, 2021. It was viewed by millions on television and by a select few in person who to the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. The poem encapsulates the broader history of the country, and its struggle for and against equal rights for all people, as well as more recent history. This includes the events that took place in the United States over the previous four years and even the weeks before the inauguration. This includes the murder of George Floyd, and other police murders throughout the last years and decades in the country’s history, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and more.
In addition to being historically important for all Americans, Gorman’s poem had a literary significance that’s also noteworthy. She is the second he has in the past cited Maya Angelou as one of her primary inspirations, something that’s made even more meaningful by the fact that Angelou was the first Black and first female poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Gorman even wore a small ring, decorated with a birdcage, to commemorate Angelou’s well-loved ‘Caged Bird.’
The speaker in ‘The Hill We Climb’ is Gorman herself. She references herself a few times in the text, as well as her upbringing, goals, and her family. She refers to herself as a “skinny Black girl descended from slaves” and celebrates the fact that because of the way the tide has changed so far in regard to race in the United States that she is able to recite a poem for the President of the United States.
The setting of ‘The Hill We Climb’ is the exact moment in which Gorman is reading it. She is standing at the inauguration ceremony of the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, talking about herself standing there reading a poem. More broadly, Gorman speaks about her location in the United States among a diverse population and in the middle of an incredibly important historic moment. In her poem, Gorman is celebrating the fact that the country made it through this period and now has the opportunity to right itself.
Gorman makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Hill We Climb.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, enjambment, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important devices in the poem. It occurs when the poet makes a reference to something but doesn’t clearly describe it. In this piece, she alludes to the struggles America, and the world, faced in 2020, as well as the broader issues associated with the Trump presidency (and the longer history of the country).
Enjambment is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts of a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five, as well as six and seven. There are numerous other examples scattered throughout the poem.
Anaphora is a type of repetition that occurs when the poet uses the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines of text. For example, “Somehow” in lines twelve and thirteen as well as “That even as we” thirty-seven through thirty-nine.
When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
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
In the first lines of ‘The Hill We Climb,’ the speaker begins by making a few powerful statements about what “we’ve learned.” The “we” she uses throughout the poem refers to the American people, and more broadly the citizens of the contemporary world. She alludes to dark moments in our recent history, using “shade” as a symbol for them. There are losses, a sea to “wade” and many horrors in the past, represented by the “belly of the beast.” These lines refer to everything from economic and racial injustice to the Coronavirus and the more recent unrest in the United States in the years of the Trump administration.
There is a turn in the poem in the ninth line where the poet interrupts herself to say that the “dawn is ours / before we knew it.” Suddenly, she says, we have a chance to put things right. The United States isn’t “broken / but simply unfinished.” This simple phrase is at the heart of Gorman’s poem. The country, she says, hasn’t failed or broken, it is simply still on its way to its full potential.
The next lines allude to Gorman herself as a “skinny Black girl / descended from slaves and raised by a single mother.” She concludes this phrase by describing herself in that very moment—reciting a poem she wrote for a president.
And yes we are far from polished
far from pristine
but that doesn’t mean we are
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
In the next lines, readers should take a moment to consider how the examples of alliteration in the lines work together to give rhythm to a poem that has no clear metrical pattern. For example, “cultures, colors, characters and / conditions.” Another example follows with “future first.” In the later lines, there is another good example of repetition, specifically, anaphora. It occurs when the same word or words are used at the beginning of lines. In this case, “that even as we.”
The poet asks everyone listening who supports the newly inaugurated president and those who do not, to “lay down our arms / so we can reach out our arms.” By using “arms” to describe weapons and one’s physical arms, she’s attempting to draw in the divide between these two sides. In this phrase, “we tried / That we’ll forever be tied together,” the poet is again alluding to the difficulties of the previous year and the suffering, physical, mental, and emotional, and how it should bring everyone who suffered together.
Not because we will never again know defeat
but because we will never again sow division
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
In the next lines, the speaker says that America and Americans will overcome their differences and be “victorious” not because they will “never again know defeat” but because they “will never again sow division.” They would not, in this scenario, be defeated in their unity.
No one is going to turn on their neighbor and that will mean that America will stay strong and true to its ideals. It’s in the next lines that the poet alludes to a very recent event in the historical context of this poem, the storming of the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6th, an armed insurrection committed by supporters of then-President Trump. Gorman described finishing this poem the day after that event and used it to help fuel these concluding lines. She writes that “We,” the American people, have seen a “force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it.” The effort, and the efforts of those who supported the insurrection in the media and in the Congress, nearly succeeded, she adds. But the “democracy” was not “permanently defeated.”
In this truth
in this faith we trust
For while we have our eyes on the future
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
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
In the next lines, she uses repetition to suggest that this time in America’s history is going to be one that is of the utmost importance. History has its “eyes on us,” she says. The “new hour” she speaks about has risen out of the darkness of the recent years, carried in by activists, artists, and young people. These groups, along with many others, helped to defeat President Trump and elect President Biden. Now the new chapter brings hope to the future days this country is going to live through. She asks rhetorical questions that suggest that there was no way that “catastrophe” was ever going to prevail over the country.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
In the final lines of the poem, Gorman uses more instances of repetition in order to talk her way around the country, from the “gold-limbed hills of the west” to the “windswept northeast.” In all these places, and more, she concludes, the country will “rebuild, reconcile and recover.” The people of the country, “diverse and beautiful,” will rise up and be at the forefront of the future. The poem ends with one of the most memorable phrases, insuring those listening to be “brave enough” to “see” and “be” the light that the country needs in this new dawn.
Structure and Form
‘The Hill We Climb’ by Amanda Gorman is a 110-line poem that does not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem is written in free verse but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely without rhyme or rhythm. In fact, this poem is defined by its use of rhyme almost as much as it is by its content and historical context. For example, “shade” and “wade” in lines one and three as well as “beast” and “peace” in the following two lines. There are also examples of half-rhymes. For instance, “trust” and “us” in lines sixty-two and sixty-four.
The hill is at the heart of Gorman’s inaugural poem. It features in the title and is part of every line she recited at Joe Biden’s inauguration. It symbolizes the hill that the United States is currently climbing, socially and politically, and how far the country still has to go before it reaches the top of the hill. ‘The Hill We Climb’ mentions, as other inaugural poems have described before hers, that America is not a perfect country. It might arrive there eventually, but for now, everyone has to work together to ensure the country gets where it needs to be–a place of harmony where all people are valued and taken care of.
Although perhaps out of reach in the contemporary moment, unity is the final goal that ‘The Hill We Climb’ advocates for. Eventually, Gorman suggests, America will be able to come together as one people. Different races and religions will be accepted and celebrated for their individuality rather than singled out for it.
Light is a very common symbol in inaugural poems. It can be found within the first and last lines of ‘The Hill We Climb’ and is always contrasted with darkness. Light takes on the traditional symbol of hope, a new day, and peace while dark symbolizes suffering and the mistakes of the past. Gorman uses passages to depict America stepping out of the dark and into the light. Such as the following lines found at the end of the poem:
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
She depicts the American people as the light and the hope of the future. If everyone listening to her read ‘The Hill We Climb,’ and all those who aren’t can address their differences,
Readers who enjoyed Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb,’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘America’ by Allen Ginsberg—depicts the poet’s own disappointment with the social and political situation of America at the time this poem was written.
- ‘Long, too long America’ by Walt Whitman— an early Civil War poem in which Whitman supports constitutional democracy.
- ‘Let America Be America Again’ by Langston Hughes—focuses on the American dream and what it means. As well as how hard it is to acquire.
You can also read some of the best poems about hope too.
Amanda Gorman’s Poetry Collection
Those that enjoyed ‘The Hill We Climb‘ will also be interested in Gorman’s collections of poetry:
- The Hill We Climb and Other Poems – The debut poetry collection by inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman.
- Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem – A lyrical picture book debut, with illustrations from #1 New York Times bestselling illustrator, Loren Long.
- The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country – A special edition of the poem ‘The Hill We Climb,’ that was read at the inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States of America.