On Jan. 20, during President Joe Biden’s inauguration, we watched in awe as Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate, took to the stage and spoke truth to power — after Jan. 6, 2021. Amanda Gorman stood and spoke to the nation just days after hundreds of predominately white people stormed the Capitol, waving Confederate flags, reminding us that many in this country will always fight to uphold white supremacy. We watched Amanda Gorman speak truth to power at 22 years old, while grown men and women couldn’t muster up a modicum of courage to call out Donald Trump for inciting a riot. The world paused as this young Black poet stood in her truth and reminded this nation that we could be better if we desired to be better.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy
And this effort very nearly succeeded
But while democracy can be periodically delayed
it can never be permanently defeated
Immediately Amanda’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” went viral as a charge to this nation.
As a poet, I was interviewed about Amanda Gorman. And while my heart beamed with pride, I understood that this nation loves to devour Black greatness without investing in Black excellence. I looked on — as an older Black poet — and felt this urge to protect what I knew was indeed sacred before this world took what it wanted, gobbled it up and then spit it all back out. While we all stood in awe, I felt compelled to remind my city that there is an Amanda Gorman in our very own school system of Jefferson Country Public Schools. Amanda Gormans exist all throughout this nation. The problem is you don’t see them. As a mother of a Black girl that went through JCPS, I understand how it is to have a Black girl in a school system that doesn’t value Black girls. In a 2019 article, “According to JCPS, suspension rates are three times higher for Black girls than their white peers, and Black girls have the lowest sense of belonging among student groups. That statistic drops even lower after middle school.” I understand one of the first places that will tell Black girls what they can’t be and reinforce that with their actions, is in school.
However, please know there are Black girls in schools that are phenomenal poets, writers and speakers. Black girls that dream of being the next Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde or Nikki Giovanni. However, too many white teachers call Black girls loud. They tell Black girls they are unladylike. They tell Black girls they are too aggressive. They tell Black girls to lower their hopes, dreams and ambitions. They label Black girls as women when they are just girls. They are concerned about how Black girls wear their hair. They never introduce Black girls to authors that look like them, who are writing about the things that impact their lives. They create and support an environment where Black girls can be physically abused by those in so-called authority. The curriculum never focuses on Black girls and women and our achievements throughout history. Black girls rarely have the experience of being educated by a teacher that looks like them. Black girls are silenced instead of being encouraged to use their voices. Black girls are hushed instead of being rewarded for standing up. Black girls are told to just be quiet when they dare to challenge antiquated rules. And even when Black girls are silent, they are tossed across classrooms like rag dolls.
There are countless videos of Black girls being assaulted, tased, body-slammed and assaulted in school.
This year, I watched in horror as a 9-year-old Black girl was pepper-sprayed by the police. Nine years old. As an adult woman, I have been pepper-sprayed by the police for protesting the murder of Breonna Taylor. It is an experience I will never forget, and I cannot imagine a 9 year old going through the pain and confusion of being pepper-sprayed. However, in this nation, it seems it is always acceptable to abuse and silence Black girls.
How do you think this abuse will swallow up their voices? This is what this nation does to Black girls, all while praising Amanda Gorman.
Understand that you do not get the next Maya or Amanda by silencing Black girls. You do not get the next Maya or Amanda or even Hannah by putting Black girls in a cage. There is something inside of Black girls that will always long to sing no matter how many cages you attempt to put them in. Try as you might, you cannot beat that song out of Black girls. Even a blackbird will sing for freedom, and Black girls were born with a song. Black girls were born with a longing to speak the truth. Black girls are infused with their ancestors’ voices, voices that refused to be silent in times of turmoil.
When I made my comment that there are Amanda Gormans in JCPS, it resonated with a local reporter at WLKY who contacted me about a rising poet competition. I immediately supported this effort because I understand that Black girls need to have space to use their voice. Not to be exploited by whiteness, not to be muted by racism, but to be allowed the space to say what is burning in their hearts!
So sing your song, Black girl. Write your story, Black girl. Know that you deserve to be heard, Black girl. Be loud, Black girl. Shout, Black girl. Speak your truth, Black girl. Don’t let them silence you, Black girl. Be free, Black girl.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom. – Maya Angelou