Donate to RNS

Amanda Gorman, my grandma and the Black tears we cried

'We been in a rut, and we been in a rut for a long time now, but history is being made today,' Grandma said to me on the phone as she watched the inauguration.

National youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

(RNS) — Saw … what I considered a scar And redefined it as a world. — Alice Walker

I called my grandmother yesterday. I could hear the news playing in the background. She was watching the inauguration — a few hours late, but she’d had an all-morning errand earlier.

“Danté,” she said. “They need to show this moment to everyone.”

Her voice was solemn, the way it always gets when she tells me things she wants me to remember. “Now, I done seen some things in my 80 years of life,” she told me, “but I ain’t never seen anything like this.”

I asked her what she meant. I asked her if things today were as bad as they were when she was growing up as a Black girl in rural South Carolina. Her voice got serious again. “I can’t believe I done seen all the things,” she said, “and we been in a rut, and we been in a rut for a long time now, but history is being made today.”

I agreed. I told her I was glad we got to see history together, that she was able to witness it, that she didn’t break the way her country tried to break her.

“God has been good,” she said. “God has been good to us.”

I told her I was so happy a Black woman was becoming vice president. But Grandma said she was afraid for her — afraid for the ways terrible Americans always harm Black folk, how they harmed Barack Obama and she knew terrible Americans didn’t disappear when Donald Trump took his flight from the White House for the last time.

She likened the last four years to hell. She has hated every bit of the last four years, she said. I thought of the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates: “a country has been captured by the worst of its history, while millions of Americans cheered this on.”

I am feeling like we can exhale, maybe for a moment, even though in our bodies we still hold the memory of George, and of Ahmaud, and of Breonna, and of Elijah, and of 400,000 souls lost to a terrible disease, and a terrible failure. And in our minds linger the horrifying images from Jan. 6 as we beheld that angry mob storming our Capitol.


RELATED: From the Capitol to critical race theory, white Christians grieve declining hegemony


I remembered the last time I saw my grandmother, just weeks ago at my great uncle’s — her brother’s — funeral. One of the last of her siblings to have still been here, who survived American hatred and terror, gone cruelly and quickly in a COVID-infested hospital, filled with exhausted doctors and nurses and custodial staff. Another patient waiting for his bed. As the funeral ended, she walked up to his body and tenderly placed her hand on him. She touched him like she knew this world was as cruel as it was beautiful. She touched him as if her hands were greased with anointing oil, conjuring up prayers, conjuring up memories, conjuring up words that would never be enough to bring him back but were more than enough to convey the depth of her love. As my mother came alongside her, the tears started to roll and her body became limp. I had never seen my grandmother this sad, this wounded. I had never seen her so bent and broken. I thought to myself: We are all exhausted, we are all sad, we are all bent, we are all broken, we are all limp.

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

On the other end of the phone, I heard the announcer of the events that happened earlier introducing the poet Amanda Gorman.

We could have gone on and talked more about all the ways Donald Trump harmed us and all the reasons a racist country produced him. About the pain of the losses of this year.

But my grandma was ready to move on. She wanted to celebrate this new white man in the White House who loved his family and “tweets like he got sense” and this beautiful Black woman in pearls and Chucks, who came from the Blackest university on earth, swearing in to the second highest seat in the land.


RELATED: How Kamala Harris delivers on 150 years of Black women’s political history


I could hear Amanda in the background. My grandma remarked on how good of a job she was doing. And my mind went back to earlier, when I saw what all of us saw: a Black woman, using her words and her hands, using her eyes and her brilliance to help us see things in ourselves and in our country that we have avoided.

Her cadence steady, so sure yet measured, a sort of melodic sermon like Maya Angelou. She was articulating our collective angst, her words leaping and dancing as she shook our bodies and our souls straight. We have been forced to be resilient in ways we never should have been. As I listened again, I thought of how our wounds are as real as the blood beneath our skin, even as we dream of something better for ourselves, our communities and our country. I was shook because I knew her words are my own, I knew her words are what my grandma was saying when she talked about hating and being afraid and being happy and being so glad she made it. Her words were opening up both our pains and our promises. Amanda was being responsible the same way my grandmother was being responsible: to see and hear her is to see and to hear what is true of us and can be possible for us.

Amanda was a theologian in the truest sense of the word — she was making divine possibilities intelligible and offering an alternative world of love, freedom, hope and joy. Theology is not just speaking or wrestling; it is also helping us dream a little bit of the future God has for us. It is pondering the actual, imagining the possible. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” Toni Morrison would say. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

“Somehow we do it,” I heard Amanda say. “Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” My grandmother said that young woman should be in government and running policy. I laughed.

Then Grandma told me what she’s been praying for. Our conversation shifted into memories. We laughed together, but there is real pain. We remembered her brother.

“And so we lift our gazes not to what stands behind us, but what stands before us,” I heard Amanda say, my mind seeing the images of her Black hands waving like she was directing our hearts.

Danté Stewart. Courtesy photo

That even as we grieved, we grew, Amanda said.
That even as we hurt, we hoped, Amanda said.

“Make sure you show your children this moment,” Grandma said.

(Danté Stewart is a writer and student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Connect with him at dantecstewart.com and @stewartdantec. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)