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Linguistic humility

Two poets who listened before they spoke

Amanda Gordon Patrick Semansky/AP

Linguistic humility

When Amanda Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at President Biden’s inauguration in 2021, her call for unity echoed loudly. Publishers responded by printing 1.5 million copies of the book version which debuted last March. That book went on to rank No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. It also earned the highest one week sales of any book of poetry ever published.

Why was America so hungry for her words? Was it her left-of-center politics? Youth and beauty on America’s political stage? Both, certainly. But coming on the heels of the political unrest of Jan. 6, Gorman also touched our anxieties with the grace of poetry. Her words blended jazzlike wordplay (rhyming “just is” with justice) with aspirational, timeless phrases: “We are striving … to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”

Part of her success seems to be this—before she spoke, she listened. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2021 that while composing the poem, Gorman studied writings by Frederick Douglass and other classic American writers. That kind of linguistic humility once formed an important part of our education. Poetry critic and host of The Daily Poem podcast, David Kern, recently edited 30 Poems to Memorize (Before It’s Too Late). In the preface, he argues that older generations relied on what they could remember (not digital databases), and therefore valued minds “full of things that were … good, true, and beautiful.” Memorizing great works, he says, can still help readers “inhabit and be inhabited by that which is transcendent.”

This Black History Month, Christians might put one other book in their library cue: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley. Published in 1773, it became the first published book of poetry by any African American writer. A pious Christian who wrote her poems as a slave, Wheatley’s brilliance stunned American founding fathers like John Hancock. But Henry Louis Gates Jr. says in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley that her popularity faded with racially motivated opposition from Thomas Jefferson. Beginning in the 1960s, Gates adds, many writers blacklisted Wheatley for being “too white.”

Wheatley’s neoclassical poems don’t always resonate with modern readers. But homeschoolers might do a fruitful unit study on her, incorporating a kids’ biography and her retelling of the Bible story about “Goliath of Gath.” In addition, all ages might find it worthwhile to “inhabit and be inhabited by” her poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”

’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Some today cringe at the poem’s lack of criticism of slavery. But Wheatley doesn’t portray her enslavement as a “mercy,” full stop. Rather, she sees her enslavement as light, momentary affliction compared to the “wonders of God’s infinite love.”

I also appreciate Wheatley’s soft rebuke. “Remember,” she says to the Americans of her day who had forgotten the humanity of “Negro” slaves. And “Remember,” she seems to say to us today, as we’re tempted to retreat into worldly political and racial tribes. God will redeem His people, a chosen race out of every nation and tribe and tongue. And no prejudice, old or new, can undo His work to make us one.

Gorman’s call for unity was good, but Wheatley’s is better. Both proffer poems worth remembering this Black History Month.

Emily Whitten

Emily is a book critic and writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Mississippi graduate, previously worked at Peachtree Publishers, and developed a mother's heart for good stories over a decade of homeschooling. Emily resides with her family in Nashville, Tenn.



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