On January 20, 2021, the twenty-two-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman took stage at the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony. Her spine tall and straight, her eyes shining bright, with a slight smile on her lips, and her voice pulsing with passion she delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb.” She began, “When day comes we ask ourselves: Where can we find light in this never ending shade?” almost echoing the very first verses of the Declaration of Independence, “When in the Course of human events”—the verses that prompt one to pause and reflect on what has come before and what needs to come next for not only the continuance but also the survival of a people. Gorman’s poem was a declaration after all, not a declaration of national independence, but a declaration of the necessary humility and radical hope for a democracy in the United States.
Gorman was commissioned to write a poem on the presidential inauguration’s theme, “America United.” The theme of unity was selected specifically in response to the vast challenges with which the United States had been wrestling: political polarization, systematic oppression, discrimination, injustice, and violence to mention but a few. In addition to these age-old, stubborn battles, the United States had been confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, a resulting economic crisis, rising unemployment, as well as an ever-worsening climate crisis stoking fires, severe storms, and hurricanes one after another across the country. The economic, social, and political grievances had given way to wide-spread anger, resentment, anxiety, despair, and fear in the nation. Writing a poem about and toward unity, in the face of all these struggles and suffering was a “monumental” task, in Gorman’s own words. In an interview with the New York Times she admitted to feeling exhausted, writing a few lines a day, and struggling to finish the poem. Then came January 6, 2021.
On January 6, just two weeks before the presidential inauguration took place where Gorman delivered her poem, the U.S. Capitol Building was stormed by a furious mob of right-wing extremists that sought to overturn the 2020 election results and interrupt the confirmation of the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden. Several insurgents carried confederate flags, some members of militias bore weapons, and a few rioters wore Camp Auschwitz t-shirts. The images in the news outlets and social media showed them scaling walls, assaulting the Capital Police and reporters nearby, and smashing glass windows to enter in. The Senators, members of the Congress, and staff were either escorted out or went into hiding, as the mob ransacked the offices and vandalized the Capital building. Five people died and a hundred and forty police officers were injured during the riot. Two police officers later died by suicide.
The night of the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Gorman finished writing her poem. She added the lines:
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our county if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
Though Gorman wrote these lines in reference to the 2020 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, their significance goes beyond the elections and the insurrection. They go beyond the threat posed by right-wing extremism, conspiracy theories, or political polarization between the Republicans and Democrats. These lines are about the essence of democracy in the United States, as well as its history, current status, and future.
The suggestion that a democracy can be periodically delayed implies that this democracy is not yet complete, not yet achieved. Therefore, this democracy is not to be taken for granted, boasted about as an accomplishment, counted on as a possession. The idea that democracy is yet to come or is a work-in-progress, deeply challenges the United States’ celebrated self-image as a democratic state. Moreover, it calls into question the United States’ self-acclaimed missionary role that aims to bring democracy to those countries and regions of the world which the United States itself deems to be under oppressive regimes.
The dominant narrative in the United States projects remarkably noble ideals: It begins with a promised land, a paradise, a new world for new beginnings, a city upon a hill. On this stage it unveils the Declaration of Independence which speaks so eloquently about the self-evident truths of equality, as well as the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Then, it weaves in the American dream of opportunity, prosperity, success, upward social mobility. Last but not least, it transports these proclaimed ideas and ideals across its borders in a self-professed effort to redeem the world. However ardent and idealistic, the narrative of course is not absolute. In its shadow fester contradictory realities which persistently haunt the national consciousness. They taunt the simplistic and solipsistic self-narratives that resound goodness, purity, and pride in its enclosed chambers. These realities, though renounced and repressed, are still very prevalent, their evidence entirely apparent: land theft, genocide, slavery, imperialism, militarism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, mass incarceration, police violence, immigrant detention centers, border killings, abuse and exploitation of laborers, income inequality, unemployment, poverty, mass shootings, suicide, domestic violence, addictions of all sorts from alcohol to opioids, materialism and capitalist excess, corporate corruption, environmental destruction… A great gap as such between the idealized self-image and reality demonstrates an urgent need and necessity for critical self-reflection in the United States, a need and necessity to see through the dominant narratives, ideas and ideals which are consistently taken for granted—including, of course, the idea and ideal of democracy.
Revisiting the Declaration of Independence offers an opportunity for this kind of national self-examination. The Declaration with its empowering message of unity, equality, and freedom has been ingrained in the American consciousness for centuries: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Though eloquent and inspiring, this rhetoric is deceiving; because the self-evident truth when the Declaration was read publicly on July 4th 1776 was that these rights did not actually apply to everyone. The self-evident truth was inequality. The fifty-six delegates representing the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration—all of them white, wealthy, male, and most of them slave-holders—did not intend to include the peasants and workers, the slaves, the Native Americans, or the women. The governed people to which the Declaration referred was only a small group of people: white men with property. They were the ones whose rights were acknowledged. They were the ones whose life, liberty, and happiness mattered. They were the ones whose votes were to be counted. The stated ideal of equality could not have been farther than the lived reality in the colonies. In truth, the new nation suffered from deep divisions—economic, social, racial, and ethnic—and great injustices.
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence did not outline the blueprint for the U.S. legislative system; it, nevertheless, stated the ideals of the nation and therefore provided an ideological foundation for the democratic government of the United States. While doing so, it also revealed the dissonance between political promises and social realities, the disparities between the national ideals and the lived experience of the people. If democracy is built on the ideals that the Declaration put forth, this means that it is also built upon the very dissonances, disparities, contradictions that were—and still are—inseparable from those same ideals. In Democracy Matters, philosopher and social activist Cornel West writes,
The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy. No other democratic nation revels so blatantly in such self-deceptive innocence.
The undemocratic foundation stones to which West refers undermine both the promise and presence of a democracy in the United States. West expounds, “The most painful truth in the making of America—a truth that shatters all pretensions to innocence and undercuts all efforts of denial—is that the enslavement of Africans and the imperial expansion over indigenous peoples and their lands were undeniable preconditions for the possibility of American democracy.”
The insurrection at the Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on January 6th—an unmistakable display of white supremacy with all its violence, willful ignorance, and moral indifference—was an attempt at returning the country to a time when racism or imperialism were not questioned, instead they were granted and treated almost as a badge of honor. A time when the so-called democracy functioned without the votes of countless citizens because of their race, ethnicity, or gender. The political slogan “Make America Great Again” hints at this regressive move, this nostalgia and longing for a time when the words in the Preamble to the United States Constitution, “We the People,” privileged white people and did not take into account the rights, votes, or voices of others in the nation. Reflecting on the events of January 6th, feminist philosopher Judith Butler writes:
The white supremacists who stormed the Capitol are … convinced not only that the elections were stolen, but their country as well, that they are being “replaced” by black and brown communities, by Jews, and their racism fights against the idea that they are being asked to lose their idea of white entitlement and supremacy. To this end, they transport themselves back in time to become Confederate soldiers, they occupy fantasy figures on video games with superhuman powers, they dress as animals and bear guns openly, reliving the “wild west” and its genocide of indigenous peoples. They also understand themselves as “the people” and “the nation” which is why they are still in some shock as they are arrested for felonies. How could this be trespass or sedition or conspiracy if they were only reclaiming “their house”?
In an essay entitled “Mourning for Whiteness,” which was published in 2016, novelist Toni Morrison had also examined the sense of loss and the ensuing disorientation experienced by white Americans who fear that they are losing their racialized rank in today’s United States:
Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.
Morrison had pointed out how so many white voters thus welcomed the fear, resentment, and rage sowed by the 45th U.S. President Donald Trump. A president whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people, who has been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, who called immigrants from Mexico rapists and criminals, who proposed a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, who told black and brown U.S. congresswomen who are in fact American citizens to go back to their countries, who called the Black Lives Matter movement “a symbol of hate”. A president whose words and actions not only demonstrated, but openly embraced and exacerbated the systematic racism, injustice, and violence which is entrenched in the United States.
The insurrection at the Capitol Hill was not even a revelation regarding the fragility of the political system or the deep fractures and insecurities at the heart of the American nation, but a mere reminder of them. Yet, as Gorman put it in her inaugural poem, this acknowledgement of inherent vulnerability does not necessarily sentence the United States to brokenness, instead it affirms the task at hand, the arduous work ahead in the name of democracy:
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed.
A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
The emphasis on “unfinished” urges a conversation both about the nation and its narrative, and about the true meaning of democracy. Because democracy is not solely about the Constitution or the ballot box. Yes, it is a political system, but it is also greater than just that. Democracy is a practice. It goes beyond casting one’s vote; it also requires citizens to strive to remain well-informed, active participants, who do not shy away from questions and national self-reflection, who are willing to imagine, understand, and own the realities overshadowed by rhetoric of pride and power, who are open to candid and at times difficult conversations about their country and its policies and practices. As philosopher Kelly Oliver writes, “We can never stop interrogating and interpreting our notions of justice, democracy and freedom, which means that we can never stop asking ourselves why we do what we do, why we value what we value, why we desire what we desire, and why we fear what we fear.” This ongoing process of self-interrogation and self-interpretation is crucial to a new understanding of democracy not as a given, not a constant, not an indisputable fact, or a dogma. From emancipation to reconstruction, to civil rights, to Black Lives Matter and beyond, movement by movement, milestone by milestone, democracy calls for recognition, resistance, reconciliation. In this way, democracy can be seen as an ongoing, open-ended conversation, a practice, and a struggle.
On Humility and Radical Hope
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit—
It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.
Stepping into the past and repairing it, as Gorman proposes, requires the American nation to let go of the inflated sense of self and its accompanying illusions, so that it can turn to the eclipsed corners of its history, reckon with the dark presence of its defeated ideals and violent truths. This move to undo collective bad-faith—which is the attempt to escape angst, anguish, and responsibility by overlooking the evidence that contradicts one’s self-narratives, stated values and ideals; living a lie and thus becoming “a deceiver and a deceived in a single consciousness” in philosopher Lewis Gordon’s words—begins with honesty and a willingness to let go of the falsehoods, fictions, pretenses and masks, so one can finally give up the self-deception and deceit, and as a result attain humility. Embracing this spirit, Gorman in her poem revokes the simplistic beliefs in the United States which uphold a self-image of inherent goodness and innocence, she emphasizes instead the importance of purpose over purity and perfection:
And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine.
But this doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge a union with purpose.
Striving for purpose, rather than perfection, is at the heart of humility. Humility does not imply inferiority, meekness, or weakness, but rather a commitment to honesty, integrity, and wisdom. The word humility comes from the Latin “humilis,” which derives from “humus” meaning earth or ground. Founded upon a ground of earthy, elemental, essential self-knowledge, humility then is a strength. Because there is a certain wisdom that comes from knowing one’s self—acknowledging one’s accomplishments, as well as failures, admitting one’s strengths, skills, inspirations, as well as limitations, imperfections, and mistakes. In ancient Greece, the aphorism “know thyself” was carved into stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus affirmed: “All people ought to know themselves.” The age-old imperative represents not only a theological, philosophical stance, but also a political one; and not only personal, but a collective requisite. Forging a union with purpose is only possible through self-knowledge.
“We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about this past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self,” offers author and civil rights activist James Baldwin, “This is also true of nations.” The collective, national self-knowledge that is attained through historical consciousness undoes blind patriotism and begets a different kind of love for one’s nation—an ethic of love that is founded upon honest, critical social consciousness. An ethic of love that does not attempt to repress that which is problematic or turn away from contradictions, but embraces complexity, paradox, and even uncertainty. As Kelly Oliver argues, “This process of loving, but with critical interpretation, opens up the possibility of working-though rather than merely repeating the blind spots.” Self-knowledge grounded in an ethic of love, with a commitment to critical consciousness, honesty, and wisdom, can help American nation see through its dominant narratives and rhetoric in order to distinguish the realities overshadowed by its ideals, name the unfulfilled promises of democracy, and thus begin on a new path for national healing.
When explaining her vision for national unity and healing to the New York Times, Gorman spoke against “erasing or neglecting the harsh truths” and stressed the need for reconciliation instead. The shade, the loss, the grief, the hurt, the fatigue, the divide, the defeat, the catastrophe, the wound: The words and imagery of “The Hill We Climb” thus admit these harsh truths of the American past and present. Gorman offered:
We will not march back to what was,
But move to what shall be:
A country that is bruised but whole.
Embracing wholeness rather than an illusory perfection, acknowledging and tending to the losses, wounds, and bruises are once again all about humility. For Gorman, unity and healing in the United States are only possible by “making space for grief, horror, hope.” In other words, hope cannot stand alone. It has to embrace grief and horror. Only when the American nation faces the fears, feels the pain, it can attain the necessary resilience and courage to regain and maintain hope—and not just any hope, not mere positivism or optimism, but a hope that acknowledges and honors the suffering, a hope that is grounded in social critical thinking and consciousness. “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety,” cultural critic Maria Popova asserts. The kind of hope that is required for social and political change, embraces the struggle while anticipating and working toward a better future. It is not a hope that merely comforts, but one that demands reflection and action. American philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes about radical hope:
For what may we hope? Kant put this question in the first-person singular along with two others — What can I know? and What ought I to do? — that he thought essentially marked the human condition. With two centuries of philosophical reflection, it seems that these questions are best transposed to the first-person plural. And with that same hindsight: rather than attempt an a priori inquiry, I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence… What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.
Though it keeps an eye on the future, radical hope cannot just dwell in a world to come, it cannot be only about transcendence. True transformation has to be rooted in the depths. While looking ahead into the future, it also necessitates digging deep into the past. The etymology of the word “radical” comes from the Latin “radix,” which means root. Late Latin “radicalis” refers to “of or having roots,” and therefore means going to the origins and essences. A radical hope for unity and democracy, therefore, has to be rooted in an understanding of the very origins—the oppressive, discriminatory, antagonistic, undemocratic roots, the historical and systematic forms of oppression—that underlie social and political struggles, both past and present. All growth and progress, both individual and collective, require this kind of critical self-awareness. As founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung commented, “No noble, well-grown tree ever disowned its dark roots, for it grows not only upward but downward as well.”
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois considers the sorrow songs sung by the black slaves: “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” He reflects on the hopefulness and grace these spirituals communicate in the midst of the slaves’ unbearable experiences of strife, violence, and exile. Du Bois writes:
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
Having also grounded her inaugural poem on the question of justice early on by stating, “what ‘just is’ isn’t always justice,” Gorman brought her recitation to a close, affirming a faith:
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it,
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Gorman’s final words assuring the presence of light raises the unanswerable, yet inevitable question posed by Du Bois over a century ago: “Is such a hope justified?”
Justified or not, nothing short of radical hope can loosen the tight grip of collective despair, defeatism, cynicism that has been suffocating the American nation. Nothing short of radical hope can grant the society the resilience and courage that is necessary for tending to the collective wounds. Nothing short of radical hope can fuel the critical reflection and action that is needed to work toward democracy. As long as those like the twenty-two year old poet Amanda Gorman, who not only dream or imagine, but embody and boldly proclaim radical hope continue to sing, this unfinished United States can continue on its path to wholeness.
This piece was first published in “Philosophy and Global Affairs” 1:2, 2021, pp. 225–236.