I went to Washington for joy, and Amanda Gorman delivered it

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CNN's Anderson Cooper speaks with Amanda Gorman, the nation's first-ever youth poet laureate, after she delivered a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Posted: Jan 22, 2021 6:31 AM
Updated: Jan 22, 2021 6:31 AM

Like millions of other Americans, I was infected with Covid-19 in 2020 -- part of a wave of suffering that came as a direct result of the way the Trump administration failed to manage the pandemic. While I thankfully recovered, it wasn't lost on me that I got sick while reporting on the plight of meat processing workers in Arkansas whose pleas to be seen and heard amid the pandemic were going largely ignored. At the end of four years of a presidency in which journalists like me were regularly declared "enemies of the people" and after recovering from Covid-19, I began 2021 wondering how to recover my hope for democracy and sense of faith in the citizens of the United States.

The idea of needing to be in Washington, DC, on Inauguration Day gripped me and wouldn't let go, even after the January 6 insurrection: I had to witness the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris, the only woman in my lifetime -- in my mom's and my grandma's and all women in the US's lifetime -- to be elected to the position. I knew I had to be there, but I wasn't expecting to leave with a transformed understanding of what the voice of true power in America could sound like.

Arriving in DC the week before the inauguration, shortly after the White supremacist attempt to take the Capitol, I found myself in the unusual position of -- for the first time in my professional life -- ordering body armor and a helmet which, in light of the storming of the Capitol, was recommended for all journalists covering the inauguration.

In DC, despite 25,000 National Guard troops and an increased police presence on the streets, I found joy and inspiration in what from now on I will call the Amanda Gorman Effect, after the surge of joy and rapt attention the inaugural poet brought forth from the nation and from the women who spoke to me on the streets of DC.

The day of the inauguration, normally some 200,000 tickets are distributed to members of Congress and their constituents. Because of the pandemic and the security concerns, Congress was limited to tickets for themselves and one guest. As the National Guard and police blocked off the streets around the White House and the Capitol and set up checkpoints in preparation for the inauguration, the streets became eerily quiet. I decided to go to Black Lives Matter Plaza (a pedestrian area near the White House, renamed as such in June 2020 by the city's mayor) -- where some Biden supporters had assembled to celebrate.

At Black Lives Matter Plaza, there were girls and women like me who, despite the tension in the city created by the level of militarization, wanted to be present for the beginning of a new era, one in which women like Harris and Gorman, the youth poet laureate, will redefine what power looks and sounds like.

Tiffany Jamel, 22, wore a "Black Lives Matter" mask and a shirt that read "Why be a racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic, when you could just be quiet?" She said that she began college right after Trump was elected and after graduation, she knew she wanted to come and see what she thought would be the defining inauguration of her life. She drove from Florida to Washington, DC, with two friends to witness the inauguration and described the experience as surreal -- she admitted that until that moment, she didn't think we would see a woman as president or vice president in her lifetime.

Activist Nadine Seiler, 55, said she had been occupying the plaza to protect it from racists -- even sleeping there -- since October. She wore a knitted pink pussy hat and face mask that read MADAM in pink and VP in blue. She had seen the White supremacists march towards the White House on January 6 but had never imagined that they were going to be successful in storming the Capitol. She told me that some Black Lives Matter supporters she knew in the area had been afraid to come to the plaza on Inauguration Day for fear of being harassed or threatened.

Smokey Sims, a BLM activist who had been occupying the plaza and supporting Seiler, said of Harris, "I am glad we've got a woman in office. I'm glad she's Black. I'm glad she's Asian. And hopefully she'll be president next. That's what I want."

At the inauguration ceremony, Gorman -- a woman the same age as Jamel -- held the world's attention as she recited her poem "The Hill We Climb," saying, "The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it -- if only we are brave enough to be it."

And in that moment, Jamel and her friends saw that power looks like a 22-year-old poet armed only with her words and a coat the color of sunshine and power looks like a 56-year-old Black and South Asian woman with her husband -- the supportive second gentleman -- by her side.

Gorman, who dreamed of being president as a girl, described herself as a "skinny Black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother." The shadow of violence that loomed over the inauguration was eclipsed by her light, by the way her words began to heal a divided nation.

After four years in which we have all endured the images, words and actions of (mostly) male White power, so many of us are ready for this brave new beginning, one in which we are reminded of the magic of poetry and the way words, arranged just so, can bring us together.

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