Amanda Gorman and Michelle Obama talk about the Black renaissance on the cover of TIME

The inauguration poet reveals how the former FLOTUS inspired ‘The Hill We Climb.’
Published February 4, 2021 3:48 p.m. EST
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Well, this feels fitting and warranted. Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman graces the new cover of TIME Magazine that explores the theme of The Black Renaissance. Created in partnership with Ibram X. Kendi, Amanda has a thoughtful and illuminating conversation with none other than former FLOTUS Michelle Obama, where they share ideas about art, identity and optimism. 

“Every time we meet, I secretly hope you forget me because then I get a clean slate. But you being the amazing person you are, you always remember,” Amanda tells Michelle in the midst of their conversation, and reveals that her epic poem, “The Hill We Climb,” was in fact inspired by Michelle’s own words. 

“A lot of the inspiration for that came from your speech at the DNC in which you said, ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,’” Amanda reveals, as Michelle drives the conversation around how poetry is cool again, how words matter, how Black women and girls are treated in society, and the power Black art and optimism have to combat that.

“If we look to the Black Lives Matter protests,” Amanda continues, “you see banners that say, ‘They buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds.’ That’s poetry being marshaled to speak of racial justice.”

“It’s no coincidence that at the base of the Statue of Liberty, there is a poem,” she later adds.

When Michelle points out that much of society maligns poetry as something “stuffy,” Amanda asserts that our perception of poets is dominated by the white men of the past, who have been canonized and are taught in schools, rather than diverse voices. 

“Poetry is already cool,” Amanda insists. “Where we run into trouble is often we are looking through such a tight pinhole of what poems can be. Specifically we’re looking at dead white men. Those are the poems that are taught in school and referred to as classics. We really need to break out of the pathology that poetry is only owned by certain elites. Where we can start is highlighting and celebrating poets who reflect humanity in all of its diverse colours and breadth.”

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Amanda explains a lot of her process and mindset when crafting a poem, or even in how she motivates herself. She reveals that her daily mantra of, “I’m the daughter of Black writers who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me,” is actually inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Moana lyrics (“Sorry Lin,” she says).

She and Michelle also share and exchange special anecdotes about giving speeches and rushing to events where they’re fixing their makeup in the car or doing their hair in a Starbucks bathroom, whereas the perception of them would be that they have a huge team of hair and makeup specialists following them wherever they go. They both agree that, as Black women, they are caught up in respectability politics.

“Despite our best attempts, we are criticized for never being put-together enough; but when we do, we’re too showy,” Amanda notes. “We’re always walking this really tentative line of who we are and what the public sees us as.”

She later adds to this thought the idea that society still just isn’t used to seeing Black women commanding the public’s attention. “Speaking in public as a Black girl is already daunting enough, just coming onstage with my dark skin and my hair and my race—that in itself is inviting a type of people that have not often been welcomed or celebrated in the public sphere.”

“Especially for girls of colour,” she continues, “we’re treated as lightning or gold in the pan—we’re not treated as things that are going to last. You really have to crown yourself with the belief that what I’m about and what I’m here for is way beyond this moment. I’m learning that I am not lightning that strikes once. I am the hurricane that comes every single year, and you can expect to see me again soon.”

We absolutely love this for her, and the profound way she has manifested her destiny every day of her life. In one of the more poignant moments of their conversation, Amanda reveals to Michelle the high standards she has set for herself for every poem she writes, not just the ones that commemorate a president.

“Something I haven’t told anyone else is, for the past six years whenever I’ve written a poem that I knew was going to be public or performed, I told myself, write the Inauguration poem. And what that meant for me is not necessarily write a poem that’s about a President. It was: write a poem that is worthy of a new chapter in the country. In everything you write, write something that is brave enough to be hopeful. In everything that you write, write something that is larger than yourself. I don’t think I would have been able to write that Inauguration poem if I hadn’t lived every day of my life as if that was the place I was going to get.”

Styled by the prolific Jason Bolden, Gorman appears on the cover in a gown the same hue as her now-universally recognized Prada Inauguration coat designed by Canadian label Greta Constantine. The poet also wore delicate gold jewelery by "Afrofuturist luxury" brand KHIRY by Jameel Mohammed. 

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