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Amanda Gorman owes her inheritance to these icons of black poetry

Amanda Gorman’s poem at President Joe Biden’s inauguration has shaken the internet. We remember five African-American women, whose poetry light up the darkness of our times

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 20, 2021. (Photo by Patrick Semansky / POOL / AFP) (AFP)

On Tuesday, 23-year-old Amanda Gorman captured the heart of the internet with her spirited recitation of her poem, The Hill We Climb, at the inauguration ceremony of the new US president, Joe Biden.

“We've learned that quiet isn't always peace,” Gorman enunciated in the course of her 5-minute-long poem, “And the norms and notions of ‘what just is’ isn't always ‘just is’.” Filled with alliterations and handy aphorisms, her performance was a bravura act of slam poetry, whose appeal has spread to other parts of the world, especially to countries that are not lucky enough yet to shed their own homegrown Donald Trumps.

Gorman, who wants to run for president in 2036, joins an illustrious line of African-American women poets whose work resonates through our turbulent times, writers we should all get to know, read more of, and learn to celebrate. We picked five such women to get you started on this journey of discovery.

Claudia Rankine: Born in Jamaica, educated at Williams College and Columbia University, Rankine is a poet, essayist and playwright. Most famously known for her book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), she draws on personal experiences, news reports and the lives of celebrities to create a rich portrait of the African-American experience in contemporary US.

Elizabeth Alexander: In 2009, as Barack Obama entered the White House as the first black president in the history of the US, Alexander was called upon to deliver the inaugural poem. Although her recitation didn't have the spark of Gorman's, Alexander remains a formidable poet in her own right. Her 2005 book, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rita Dove: In 1993, Dove was appointed the poet laureate consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress, the first ever African-American to take on the role since the position was created in 1986. Thomas and Beulah, her best known volume of poems, based on the lives of her grandparents, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987.

Gayl Jones: Born in 1949, Jones was championed by none other than the great Toni Morrison when she published her first novel, Corrigedora, in 1975. "No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this," Morrison said after reading it. In the 1980s, Jones published three volumes of poetry, which got her critical attention, before she retreated from the public eye following a controversy involving her late husband Robert Higgins.

Maya Angelou: A prolific writer, civil rights activist and public figure, Angelou is a much-familiar and towering presence in the landscape of African-American writing. Although she is read and remembered for her iconic autobiographies, especially I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, her poetry, which is outspoken and lyrical, deserves no less attention.

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