I am not ashamed to say that I wept tears of relief when I heard President Joe Biden begin his inaugural address with these words: “This is America’s Day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope. Of renewal and resolve … and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
While Biden’s speech overflowed with hopefulness, nobody could accuse him of cockeyed optimism. He was not afraid to speak honestly of “this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal.…”
He was not afraid to direct our attention to the insurrection of Jan. 6: “And here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of democracy and to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”
Nor was he afraid to bid us to open our ears to the “cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making…a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear; and now arise political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, that we must confront and will defeat.”
Nevertheless, despite acknowledging the darkness in our past and present American experience, the dominant tone of Biden’s speech was that of light, one of “We shall overcome.” As Biden put it in simple but bold words, “We will get through this together. Together.”
When Amanda Gorman, the young, petite Black poet dressed in yellow, rose to the podium toward the end of the inaugural ceremony, little could any of us have anticipated the power of her words or the power of her person. The opening lines of her poem, embodying the soul and the rhythms of rap, well capture our current predicament, our desperate search for light in these days of darkness: “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.”
Like Biden in his inaugural address, Gorman struggles to balance an honest look at our country’s profound flaws with a hopeful gaze at what our nation’s future – if we will it – might bring. As the Jan. 6 insurrection is unfolding “live” on the screen, the poet is determined to put into words the pain of the present moment without succumbing to the futility of despair:
“We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,/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.”
Again, as in Biden’s address, Gorman ends her poem not in darkness but in light: “But there is always light/If only we’re brave enough to see it,/If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
At first glance, President Joe Biden and poet Amanda Gorman are a study in contrasts. Biden, age 78, is the oldest person ever to take the inaugural oath. Amanda Gorman is the youngest person ever to recite an inaugural poem. At age 22, Gorman is half the age of my daughter and only six years older than my eldest granddaughter! Whereas Biden is a well-known political figure who has spent 50 years in the public eye, Gorman – descendent of slaves, one of whom also carried the name Amanda, and raised by a single mother – until this past Jan. 20 was known only by a relatively small circle of family, friends and those who had experienced the power of her poetry.
Our nation is indebted to Jill Biden for inviting Gorman to compose her poem and to read it at her husband’s inauguration; our new First Lady has the wisdom and the insight to perceive that what unites her husband and the young poet is far more significant than their obvious but superficial differences. On the personal level, both president and poet possess that determination, that strength of character that has enabled them to overcome problematic speech impediments: Biden and his stutter, Gorman and her epic battle with the sound of the letter R.
As they have moved from their personal struggles to engage in the struggles of our nation at large, both Biden and Gorman find common purpose in their commitment to uncovering the many truths, both blessing and curse, buried in our nation’s past; and they are equally united in their project of bringing us together in the more perfect union that awaits us – if we will it – in the future.
In the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, often quoted by Joe Biden, we have reached that rare turning point in the life of our nation when “hope and history rhyme.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.