Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th presidential inauguration Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Patrick Semansky / The Associated Press)
Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th presidential inauguration Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Patrick Semansky / The Associated Press)

I was unprepared for and surprised by the overwhelming emotions I felt on Inauguration Day.

The tears that kept coming and coming as the day unfolded were unexpected. I wept as our first Black, Indian and female vice president finally broke one of the toughest glass ceilings. I wept as the words of Amanda Gorman called us to our higher purpose and our better nature, as only poets and artists can do.

Gorman, the 22-year-old breakout star of the day, delivered the inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” that did not obfuscate or ignore the many challenges we still face or the ugliness of our recent past. Her words reminded us that we have been here before and that we will persevere and continue to bend the arc toward justice. She wrote:

“If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
The hill we climb if only we dare it.
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

But it wasn’t just the grace and clarity of Gorman’s soaring words or the history of the moment that brought me to tears. It was the catharsis of finally, finally, closing the book on what was four years of a relentless daily onslaught of attacks on our lives, on justice, and our planet itself, multiplied exponentially by your degree of marginalization. 

Advertising

They were tears of relief as well as waves of grief, finally taking stock of all we have lost. The communal losses — 400,000 loved ones, killed by a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic — plus personal losses I haven’t truly had time or space to mourn, never knowing when the next one would arrive.

Yes, the election was over two months ago, but I believed Trump when he said he would not leave because he falsely insisted the election was stolen. The horrific riot of Jan. 6 just reinforced his words, kept me terrified and off balance, and until his helicopter left the White House, I was never quite sure if he would actually depart, given all the other conventions he had flouted.

The tension and hypervigilance that came from not knowing what would face us from one day to the next ground me down, and on Jan. 21, there was an easing. As scholar and author Isabel Wilkerson wrote on Twitter on Inauguration Day, “Just now starting to realize the emotional toll, the psychic weight we have carried, what it does to the spirit to hold your breath for this long.” Seattle’s Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown said in The Seattle Times, “I feel as if I’ve been set free.”

As others have said, the past four years have felt like a collective trauma and an abusive relationship, particularly for people of color and other marginalized people who suffered the most under the last administration.  

Let’s be clear, no one believes President Joe Biden is some kind of messiah or that the systemic inequalities that have plagued us for centuries will just magically disappear with a change in administration.

Neither political party is free of systemic racism and everyday discrimination. But this change means a return to a belief in science, in respect for each other, a recognition of the contributions and value of people of color, of queer and trans people, and a belief that we are a critical part of the fabric of this country, and deserve to contribute and thrive. It means we finally have room to breathe, to grieve and to strive, as Gorman said, “to forge a union with purpose.”

Advertising

In addition to a host of efforts to rein in the raging pandemic, in his first few days, Biden signed executive orders that brought the U.S. back into the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization; allowed undocumented immigrants to be counted in the census; canceled the Keystone XL pipeline; removed the so-called “Muslim travel ban”; rescinded the appallingly racist and ahistorical “1776 commission”; and directed government to ensure racial equity.

This will likely be my final column about the last administration. There is much we still need to do, there is no doubt. In the coming years you can be sure I will be speaking up if lofty rhetoric on ending white supremacy and other issues is not met with commensurate action. But today we have a fighting chance to make change.

As our national ray of poetic light Amanda Gorman put it, 

“For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”