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Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Poems, Prayers, and Promises

Inauguration day 2021

Historic as inaugural addresses are, it is the poem read by Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman that will remain the most memorable expression of the day. “The Hill We Climb” knit together hope and history with gripping rhythm and internal rhyme, studded with historical allusion and creating a few of its own. It was a historic creation to celebrate a historic transition.

Gorman’s poem alluded to the first African-American president who stood just behind her, “…a skinny girl….” a deft homage to Obama’s 2004 DNC address; and her own lineage as part of a legacy of enslavement that brought Africans to America in chains long before the Biden or Harris families arrived on these shores seeking freedom.

The poem also summoned up the notions of courage healing and hope that captured the aspirations of a new president more than five decades her senior. Its lyricism and eclecticism should inspire to the new administration and the coming period of healing and recovery of America from its self-inflicted wounds.

Prayers offered by a priest and an AME pastor bracketed the proceedings with as inclusive and hopeful calls from the heart of faith as could be expressed. The new president is a lifelong man of faith and only the second Catholic elected to lead the United States. This time it does not represent a “triumph of Protestantism—over itself” as Robert Frost characterized the 1960 election, so much as a triumph of America’s most hopeful and egalitarian impulses over its most dreadful and destructive ones.

America is or isn’t a nation of faith, depending on whom you ask. George Washington’s taking the oath of office on a Masonic bible would undoubtedly be looked upon askance by today’s guardians of faith, though few of them would know what it the Masonic bible is until a staffer would google it. The Deistic views of some of the nation’s framers would cause them to look askance at the faith worn on the sleeve by some aspirants to power in our age. Those of no faith, other faith, and loyal faith should find inspiration in the words of Fr. O’Donovan and Rev. Beaman a meeting in the middle of a public square not only not denuded of faith, but broad enough to make room for many expressions of faith, even of the undecided and uncommitted.

The promise of Biden and Harris’s election and their assumption of office in duly prescribed course is the most hopeful of sign of the day. As many took pains to point out, this transition of power has proceeded every four years, in war and peace, in health and pandemic. Though disturbance and disinformation sought to disrupt this transition, order prevailed, history was made, and there sounded even an overture of reconciliation from Republicans.

President Biden has sought this office for decades and last has assumed it; Vice President Harris has changed history and undoubtedly will continue to. Biden’s inaugural speech echoed themes and phrases of the campaign trail that he has been on for more than 30 years; how could it not? Those words and ideals have engraved themselves into his soul, and we might have assumed, into the soul of the nation. Alas, they are not engraved; they are written, and can yet be smudged or even erased by incautious stewards of power. But the new President cautions us to lead not by the example of our power; rather by the power of our example. The promise of a Biden-Harris administration is the ability to look at complex problems requiring complex strategies and at the same time see the commonsense, the common weal, and the common good.

This is America’s day, as the president said, and as Ms. Gorman said, new dawn and light if only we’re brave enough to be it.

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