How does this beauty get lost amid crime rates and disparities faced by young Clevelanders? How is a whole generation of hope looked over? I imagine it is because we are currently existing in a pandemic and a time of national unrest, and perhaps these days, hope feels too hard and sometimes too luxurious of a conversation to engage in.
Still, I believe hope is the predecessor to change and joy. I believe hope to be the fuel of a new tomorrow and our youth to be the vehicles that guarantee our arrival. Like so many Clevelanders, I watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with held breath. The presidential term before them felt like a lifetime: one full of fear, cruelty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and constant misinformation in regard to state affairs and national welfare. So, when Amanda Gorman cloaked in yellow, like a sunflower reaching for the sky, walked up to the podium as the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, I felt a brightness stirring inside me desperate to find its way out.
“And yet the dawn is ours / before we knew it / Somehow we do it / Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed / a nation that isn’t broken / but simply unfinished,” she read.
Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb was a direct and unblinking stare into this country’s sordid past and possible future, and as she spoke, I was transported to my time spent as a youth poet, to when I was 15 performing in poetry slams at Playhouse Square downtown. My father was murdered on April 7, 2007 and I can’t remember anything outside of poetry that gave me any solace during that time.
It wasn’t just the act of writing or performing, it was the consistency and stability that my teaching artists and fellow youth poets gave to me each week. The theater became a place where laughter, joy, processing and innovation was the norm. I began to look forward to next week, then to next month, which became next year until I could look forward without an expiration date. I learned to cultivate my voice and engage in deep self-reflection.
Gorman reminded me of the moments where I developed the bravery to stand up and move through my grief. Gorman reminded me of what it meant to look strangers in the eye, use poetry to tell them what hurts and in that same poem, challenge myself and others to imagine better lives for ourselves. Gorman’s vulnerability felt like an invitation to address both the cruel truth of our current reality and a call to keep our future from this insidious echo.
I did not find myself exhaling until Gorman, in all her young, Black excellence, finished reading.
In the weeks following her performance, present and past students flooded my email and text messages in response to Gorman’s poem.
It wasn’t just the poem that excited them: they were completely enthralled with the notion that this entire nation would listen to the thoughts, opinions and feelings of someone in their art form and age demographic, especially in the midst of undeniable turmoil. There was a rush of youth artists who shared and submitted their work widely with a newfound exuberance — some students leaned into social justice issues, while others expressed their personal experiences growing up here in Cleveland. I received one particularly poignant poem on what Cleveland felt like the day the Cavaliers won. That student expressed how they felt a sense of unity and joy that they wished the city could feel and express all the time — especially in areas of social justice and politics.
As a teaching artist, helping youth realize their dreams and watching their dreams realized is the goal. As an artist, to educate and still maintain the passion, the time and resources to create my own art and inspire activism and imagination was my youth poet dream realized.
Cleveland has the benefit of being home to multiple arts organizations that center around youth and offer poetry as an outlet and educational tool. Those youth spark the kind of hope needed to carry us into a brighter future. I have felt it. I have attended the open mics and readings, gone to galleries and visited murals, attended concerts and recitals. I assure you we are in beautiful hands. Many of the youth artists will inherit both this city’s undeniable problems and its undeniable promise — and we owe them more than our rules and standards; we owe them our ears and hearts.
So much of our public performance spaces have gone virtual. Art organizations and teaching artists have been adapting alongside educational structures in our city to find new ways to uplift our youth. The work in youth development is continuous and cannot be done by one organization or one artist. As a community, we need to support our youth academically, emotionally and artistically during this critical time of development. We need to ensure our youth are a part of the conversation, because they will be the ones to continue it.
As Gorman stressed, the inheritance of our youth is of the utmost importance: “…love becomes our legacy / and change our children’s birthright / So let us leave behind a country / better than the one we were left with.”