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Cleveland Poets See Amanda Gorman's Words As 'Tools' To Teach

A “skinny black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” wowed the nation on Inauguration Day with her poem “The Hill We Climb.”

After President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the country’s first Youth Poet Laureate, became the youngest person to read a poem at an inaugural ceremony.  

For many around the world and locally, Gorman’s performance was nothing short of transcendent.

In South Euclid, Raja Bell Freeman watched Gorman live on television. The young poet and recent Cleveland State University graduate said their shared similarities — both are 22-year-old African American women who see poetry as a “weapon” for social change — inspired her.

“It was really exciting for me. Knowing that she's my age, it was really inspiring for me,” said Freeman. “I have had a lot of people reach out and say, ‘Oh, she reminds me of you and you could do whatever you want.’” The passage in Wednesday's poem that resonated most with Freeman reads, “Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”

“I really felt a connection to that. It's very beautifully written,” she said. “But the ‘bronze-pounded chest,’ you know, it felt like she wasn't just talking about herself. She was talking about all of us, you know, a young black girl with young black boys and everyone, you know. It just felt like she was connecting herself to us all.”

Other local poets including Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate Honey Bell-Bey were equally moved by Gorman’s words. The poem’s first lines made clear Gorman was impacted by the “pain of some of the upheaval of this nation,” said Bell-Bey.

“You could hear it, but you could also hear the hope behind it,” said Bell-Bey who works with young writers. “So, I was really impressed by that.”

However, the hope from that poem and the power of those words would be wasted, Bell-Bey said, if it were only meant for a single day.

“It has to carry on. And I am an artist, a poet laureate who intends to use it with my young students,” she said. “So it will still have life and relevance in this new era of healing that we now embark upon.” On Inauguration Day, Bell-Bey visited Wade Park Elementary School and spoke to dozens of students on their “pick-up day” to celebrate Vice President Kamala Harris as the first woman of color in the office. It’s “young poets” like those students whom Bell-Bey hopes to inspire with Gorman’s poetry.

“Once you get a platform to use that voice, it's nice to see you have the space to use it,” Bell-Bey said of Gorman’s moment on the national stage. “My bigger overarching goal is how do I light a fire under everyone else to use theirs? So can I take her words and help to inspire you to use yours?”

Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate Honey Bell-Bey celebrating Vice President Kamala Harris with students at Wade Elementary School on Inauguration Day. [Honey Bell-Bey]

Gorman’s performance reminded people that “poetry is still here and active...checking the pulse of the culture,” said Eric Odum, a youth coordinator at Twelve Literary Arts in Cleveland. The nonprofit is focused on helping creative writing artists of color.

“As far as seeing a 22-year-old black woman on that stage, having everyone's attention, having the nation's eyes on her for her intellect, for her creativity, for her call for us to unite and move forward together,” said Odum, “like, that's the whole point of the work that I do. The whole point of the work that I do is to remove the red tape, provide a foundation, a boost, whatever, whatever these young voices need to be heard and authentically heard, not just listened to.”

Eric Odum, a youth coordinator at Twelve Literary Arts, said he wants to provide a "boost" for young poets to be "authentically listened to." [Eric Odum]

Gorman has called poetry a “weapon” and a tool for social change. Freeman, who’s also a teaching artist at Twelve Literary Arts, agreed with that sentiment.

“I think it's the best way, at least for me to tell what I've experienced, to show what I've been through and to show what needs to be different. It's just, it's the best tool,” she said, adding her impressions of the power of Gorman's carefully chosen words.

“And that's a big part of poetry is being very intentional with your words and which words you use and knowing what you're saying and the impact you wanted to have on the people that you're saying it to.”

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