By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 26, 2021
“We the successors of a country and a time/Where a skinny Black girl/descended from slaves and raised by a single mother/ can dream of becoming president [of the United States].”
—Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
On May 31, 1849, Owen Finnegan, Joe Biden’s great-great grandfather from Ireland, arrived in New York aboard the ship Brothers. He was part of an oppressed people who were fleeing their country because of “caste oppression and a system of landlordism that made the condition of the Irish peasant comparable to those of an American slave” (Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White). “America,” Ignatiev explained, “scooped up the displaced Irish and made them its unskilled labor force.”
No sooner had the Irish gotten to America than they adopted the attitudes of the white oppressor class and began to treat African Americans as their inferiors. In 1843, John Finch, an English Owenite who traveled to the U.S., commented on the Irish behavior toward Black people: “It is a curious fact that the democratic party [which represented the slaveholders’ interests then], and particularly the poorer class of Irish immigrants in America, are greater enemies to the Negro population, and greater advocates for the continuance of negro slavery, than any portion of the population in the free States.”
In 1853, Frederick Douglass, the most celebrated African American of the 19th century, complained: “The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro….Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake.” He seemed to be saying that one day they would need the assistance of African Americans.
Almost 170 years later, the descendants of the enslaved Africans whom the Irish despised elevated an Irishman to the helm of U.S. leadership. Biden was not the first Irish Catholic to be elected U.S. president but unlike John F. Kennedy, the first Irish American to be elevated to this position, can attribute his election to the voting power of African Americans who came out in numbers to assure that he won the grand prize and that the Democrats would control the Senate.
Not forgetting the important role Blacks had played in his election Biden selected Kamala Harris, a Black-Asian woman, to be his running mate. In his Inaugural Address, he was the first president to speak out explicitly about the dangers of “white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism” that face the U.S. I don’t know if it was as a result of her conviction or mere happenstance that led Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Joe Biden, who had heard Amanda Gorman at the Library of Congress literary season in 2017, to invite Gorman to recite a poem at her husband’s inauguration.
Although she is only 22 years of age, Gorman has an inspiring story. She was a youth delegate to the United Nations in 2013 and was chosen the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014. In 2015, she published a poetry book, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough. In 2017, she became the first youth poet to open the literary session for the Library of Congress and was named the National Youth Poet Laureate at Harvard University where she received her undergraduate education. In 2018, she performed at the inauguration of Harvard’s president Larry Bacow.
Gorman brought these credentials to the table when she read her inspiring poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at Biden’s inauguration. Gorman’s challenge, as she prepared her spoken-word poem, was “to deliver an original composition that at once recognized the deep-sown racial and political divisions of the nation and imagined a potential path forward” (Hanna Krueger and Diti Kohli, Boston Globe, January 21). In researching her poem, Gorman went back to the words and works of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
As she itemized her nation’s challenges, she wrote: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose,/ To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man./And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us./ We close the divide because we know to put our future first,/we must first put our differences aside.” She might have been writing about Trinidad and Tobago.
Although the Bidens proudly accept their Irishness, they were not particularly concerned about when their people came to America. As patriots, they accepted all of America’s history even though their forebears were some of the most virulent oppressors of Black people. Jill Biden saw a talent that she admired, wanted to encourage her, and honored her with an invitation. This is why Gorman intoned:
“Scripture tells us to envision/that everyone should sit under their own vine and fig tree/And no one shall make them afraid/ If we’re to live up to our own time/ Then victory won’t lie in the blade/But in all the bridges we’ve made./That is the promise to glade/The hill we climb/If only we dare.”
The Bidens didn’t care particularly about what they had accomplished in America or how much power their whiteness bestowed upon them. Their challenge revolved around how to open their hearts and minds to those who welcomed them into their land when they were hungry and destitute and how they could assist skinny Black boys and girls, descended from slaves and raised by single mothers, to achieve what their talents would allow them to.
Melanie Graves, one of my students, noted that Gorman’s poem “was an open lettered warning on behalf of the entire nation that we must do better and be better.” It is a message that is relevant to T&T as well. It’s a hill all of us should aspire to climb.