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By the time I had turned on the TV to watch the inauguration of President Joe Biden, I had missed most of it. A hectic morning trying to soothe a cantankerous 4-month-old meant I would have to see clips of the event after the fact.
I caught the live telecast just as Amanda Gorman was set to recite her soul-stirring poem “The Hill We Climb.” As she took the stage, radiant in her bright yellow jacket and red headpiece, the morning’s frustrations began to recede. And when she gifted us her words, I could feel the nation let out a collective sigh of relief after four years of weathering trauma. Her voice, a balm for the weary. I will forever remember where I was when Amanda Gorman became a household name.
Transfixed by the screen, I marveled at the poise of this 22-year-old. The slight twinge of nerves did not take away from the weight of her words. From the choreographed movements of her hands to the pregnant pauses in her recitation, she assumed the mantle of a long line of orators that changed the world—Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou—and fearlessly leaned into their legacy. A dream deferred no more.
But it wasn’t until her interview with Anderson Cooper that her true impact hit me. As Cooper discussed his battles with dyslexia and speech issues as a child, Gorman reflected on her own journey to find her voice:
“I’m proud to be in the speech difficulty club with you and President Biden and also Maya Angelou. You know, growing up I had a speech impediment. And for me it wasn’t a stutter. It was, you know, dropping a whole swath of letters in the alphabet… up until two or maybe three years ago I couldn’t say the letter “R.” Even to this day, sometimes I struggle with it.”
I was transported to my own struggles in third grade, when I was pulled out of class so that I could learn to properly pronounce the letter “S”; to my unwillingness to speak up in class because, ever the only Black student, I worried that if I misspoke or gave a wrong answer, my White classmates would use it to support their assertions that I didn’t deserve to be there. It would take two decades to gain the confidence to speak in public, and I have never truly overcome the panic that wells up inside me each time I do.
But I have learned that people whose demons hide in words use the utterances of those very words to slay their demons. As a child, Maya Angelou—arguably one of the greatest writers of all time—could not speak for five years, stemming from a trauma she endured. Angelou credited her teacher Bertha Flowers with helping her regain her voice. Flowers believed that “words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” Flowers’ steady insistence coaxed Angelou’s voice to reemerge.
Indeed, there is great power not just in words, but in speaking them aloud. Despite its seemingly ephemeral nature—especially set against the materiality of the written word—it is through speech that marginalized histories have often endured. Griots, oral historians throughout West Africa, harness the power of speech to pass down centuries-worth of knowledge. Partly because of their oral nature, these traditions survived the transatlantic slave trade and served a new purpose. As the Smithsonian notes,“Institutions of slavery and racism attempted to silence generations of African Americans; thus oral history became a means of maintaining identity, surviving, and resisting oppression and exploitation, as well as a tool for achieving freedom.”
Powerful orators such as Sojourner Truth and Dr. King would go on to use the power of speech to rally ordinary people to fight for social justice. Spoken word continues this legacy of civic engagement, giving voice to the most disenfranchised.
Similarly, Gorman relied on the power of words and activating those words through speech to overcome her limitations: “I use writing, one, as a form of self-expression to get my voice on the page. But then also, metamorphosize into each own speech pathology. So, the more that I recited out loud, the more in which I practiced spoken word in that tradition, the more I was able to teach myself how to pronounce these letters which for so long had been my greatest impediment.”
In learning to vanquish her own demons through embodying language, Gorman was also preparing herself to battle ours. As she took the inaugural stage, each enunciation stopped the country in its tracks, her symphonic resonances briefly neutralizing the cacophony of lies and hate spewing from our nation’s center. Her “skinny, Black” body, enlivened by poetic language into a blockade against oppression.
As I later listened to Gorman talk about all she’s overcome, I thought about the power of mastering language, especially those languages that stubbornly push us to their margins. As a French professor, I have learned firsthand the anxieties my students face concerning language learning.To allay their worries, I now share with them my own journey learning French, Spanish, and other languages. I talk about my difficulties with auditory discrimination, where I struggle to distinguish between phonemes (the smallest units of sound in language) and to produce those sounds. I may never be able to produce the Spanish trilled “R” or the French high rounded front vowel, no matter how many hours I have spent practicing. I intimate the toll these difficulties have taken on my self-esteem, especially when language teachers or native speakers harp on what they view as substandard speech. I also am candid about my racialized identity as a Black woman speaking what many would consider “White” languages and the uphill battle I often wage in proving linguistic legitimacy. There is a reason why I have dedicated my scholarship to looking at the relationship between language and identity.
At the same time, I convey to my students the sheer joy that comes with navigating the world as a multilingual being and connecting with my fellow humans in their languages. One of my biggest accomplishments in life was as a 16-year-old studying abroad in Zaragoza, Spain, when I successfully conversed with my host family for the first time. After four months marked by the misery that comes with being mute, unable to communicate with those around me, I thought I would never find my voice. But one day, I did. And it wasn’t perfect. But it was enough to allow me to dream of belonging in the world.
It is often in the act of overcoming that we activate our power. Gorman and Cooper did so by thrusting their voices into spaces where they’d once been deemed insufficient. I realized that I became a sociolinguist and a professor for similar reasons. I needed to slay my demons—the fear of speaking up, of making a fool of myself, of being labeled not good enough—by facing them head on.
So many people struggle to claim their voices. That’s why sharing how we found ours is so important. Gorman marveled that “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.”
This is the reward for shutting out the voices that tell you you can’t and amplifying the voices that convince you you can.
“When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This article originally was published by the author on Medium. It has been edited for YES! Media and appears here with permission.
Maya Angela Smith is a sociolinguist and associate professor in the Department of French and Italian Studies at the University of Washington. Her scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of race, language, and identity among members of the Francophone African diaspora, such as in her book Senegal Abroad (U Wisconsin Press, 2019). She is also a visual artist and an avid hiker. You can learn more about her work at sites.uw.edu/mayaas/.