By Sophie Kellam, Communications Intern
As we leave Women’s History Month and move into National Poetry Month, I would like to reflect upon two women whose poetry and performances at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration shone a spotlight on intersectionality and set a tone for progress moving forward.
Andrea Hall, the first Black woman to serve as fire captain for the South Fulton County Fire Rescue, signed in American Sign Language as she recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge of Allegiance is a poem that is often recited during moments of national import and by signing it, Hall spoke to and included an audience that does not usually get acknowledged during these moments. While talking to press afterwards, she explained how including ASL was her way of honoring both her late father who was deaf, and the larger Disabled community, “I really just wanted to pay homage to the deaf and hard of hearing community. The words of the Pledge are significant not just for us, but for them as well.”
Amanda Gorman, the nation’s first-ever youth poet laureate, used her poem, The Hill We Climb, as a means for the nation to move forward. Gorman has an auditory processing disorder and speech articulation issues. Her performance shone a global spotlight on her not only as the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history but also as a Black woman with disabilities. Since getting a lot of press as a result of this performance, she has spoken openly about her struggles with taking accommodations when it was offered to her and letting herself accept help.
Gorman has also spoken about how much of an inspiration Maya Angelou was for her. Maya Angelou, also a Black woman and inaugural poet – she read her poem, On the Pulse of Morning, at President Clinton’s Inauguration – experienced selective mutism as a result of trauma from sexual abuse that she experienced as a child. I found it interesting that in her inaugural poem, Angelou mentions many marginalized groups but has no mention of people with disabilities:
“So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher”
This was a time, a mere three years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, when people with disabilities were not as widely represented or included in their communities. While I was unable to find a place where Angelou herself identified as a person with a disability in my research, I have found that many people with disabilities related to and took inspiration from her writing. Angelou received public attention for her activism and writing in a similar way to what Gorman is experiencing now.
However, today, Gorman has the opportunity to publicly acknowledge her disability and the struggles that came with it. This has mostly happened in interviews after the Inauguration, but I wonder if this line from her inaugural poem was a little shout out to the Disabled community:
“To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us”
I interpret the line about all conditions of man to refer to people with disabilities, but I think at the very least, it acknowledges the diversity of the human race and celebrates it. I find comfort in the tone she uses in her poem about how we are all important and vital in creating a strong future. I hope that as we move towards a more inclusive future, like the one Gorman envisioned from the steps of the Capitol, that we see more open discussions and representation from the perspective of people with disabilities.
It is important for the Disability community to recognize and share how the identities of people who belong to both the Disability community and the Black community intersect and create unique lived experiences. Hall, Gorman, and Angelou have done an amazing job putting these issues in the spotlight. Through their brilliant performances, people around the world have been able to see the beauty of diversity and intersectionality. They have also sparked on-going conversations about the intersection of communities of color and the Disability community. It is important to have people of color who experience disability included in events like the inauguration. It sends a powerful message to people with disabilities of all identities that we belong.
Below are some additional resources that include videos of the performances as well as a resource to check out the many great writings of these women.
- Watch the video of Andrea Hall signing the Pledge of Allegiance:
- Watch the video of Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem:
- Read and watch Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem: https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/20/politics/amanda-gorman-inaugural-poem-transcript/index.html
- Access the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled resources on Maya Angelou: https://www.loc.gov/nls/braille-audio-reading-materials/lists-nls-produced-books-topic-genre/listings-on-narrow-topics-minibibliographies/maya-angelou-author-poet/
Intersectionality is when a person who identifies in two or more oppressed groups experiences discrimination stemming from how those identities interact. If you’re interested in learning more about intersectionality, this Ted Talk by Kimberlé Crenshaw explains the concept well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o
Featured image credit: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II via Flickr
Sophie Kellam is an intern at Disability Rights Center-NH