One of Amanda Gorman’s most celebrated foremothers, Gwendolyn
Brooks, said that “poetry is life distilled.” Gorman’s young life has already brought her strength, purpose, and the chance to shape a generation with her inimitable voice.
BY: Jessica Cruel
PHOTOGRAPHED BY: Djeneba Aduayom
“I was just thinking about you.” These are the first words that Amanda Gorman says when she sees me on the set of her Allure photo shoot. I have to resist the urge to scan the room to find who she is speaking to since she and I had only met once before, for a total of 30 seconds.
Two months prior, we were both appearing on the Today show. It seemed a coincidence: two Black women with natural hair, wearing yellow dresses, taping segments one after the other (I for Allure’s new crop of Best of Beauty winners, Gorman for her children’s book, Change Sings). Of course, we did what our Black mothers taught us and said hello. First there was a nod of acknowledgment, then proper introductions.
Before arriving in L.A. for this interview, I insisted to my mother that Gorman wouldn’t remember our brief interaction. But as it turned out, she had been thinking of me. And since her appearance at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in January 2021, I — and many Americans — have been thinking about Amanda Gorman.
Watching Gorman that day transported me back to the Southern churches of my childhood, where pastors used hand gestures and voice inflections, even the occasional dance, to invigorate the congregation. They weren’t just preaching the gospel, they were rousing a community to action.
“If you look into the history of spoken word, especially poetry among the African American community, so much of that heritage comes from the Black church,” Gorman says. “I was raised Catholic, and my church, [St. Brigid parish in L.A.], had a firm stronghold in the Black community that I was growing up in. I think those things influenced my poetry and then even other aspects beyond it.”
Gorman does everything with intention. Even the way she holds her hands during a performance is choreographed. “Having a speech impediment forced me to think creatively about the ways I was going to communicate onstage,” she explains. “It wasn’t enough to just rely on my orality. I had to siphon other instruments. So if I wasn’t pronouncing a word ‘correctly’ because of the speech impediment, people might be able to look at my hands and say, ‘Oh, she’s saying running because she’s making a motion with her index and middle fingers.’”
Proenza Schouler dress. Bulgari earrings. Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom. Fashion stylist: Shibon Kennedy. Hair: LaRae Burress. Makeup: Joanna Simkin. Manicure: Yoko Sakakura. Set design: Evan Jourden. Production: Viewfinders. To create a similar makeup look: Pure Color Envy Blush in Cheeky Peach, The Brow Multi-Tasker in Granite, Pure Color Illuminating Shine in Virtual Star, and Double Wear Stay In Place Foundation in 6W1 by Estée Lauder.
Gorman brings that same grace to this cover shoot, placing her hands just so and tilting her head to the side. It’s a dance that makes her look regal, and yet she takes time to give me a friendly wave as I look on. But when the camera cuts off, there is a shyness there. The woman a nation has put on a pedestal and the “skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” are one and the same, but also two sides within Gorman — each stepping forward at the appropriate time.
When we sit down for our interview, I feel I am spending time with the latter person. She is still stately — even wearing a Bert and Ernie T-shirt — but that solemnity is conveyed more through her words than her physical presence. When Gorman recounts her childhood, it sounds like a page torn from Little Women. Twin sisters running around re-creating their imaginings as plays, painting visions of their world in watercolor, and for young Amanda, writing novellas and poems in her notebook. The family matriarch, Joan Wicks, a teacher, built a haven of creation that Marmee would envy — the primary difference being that the idyllic landscape was firmly rooted in Black culture. Gorman was nourished by the words of strong Black authors such as Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
“I’m here because my mom championed me from the beginning, when no one else would,” Gorman says, after recounting a story of an elementary school teacher who underestimated her reading skills due to her disability and how her mom stepped in to straighten things out. “I get so many comments about my confidence or the way I possess myself, and I was not just born this way. It was due to somebody else cultivating that in me.”
Gorman wanted to create works that reflected her world as a young Black woman when so much of the standard curriculum was focused on uplifting “the classics,” which is code for works by (mostly) white men. “Why am I reading Herman Melville and not James Baldwin?” she asks. “Both are representative of the human experience, one just happens to be Black. I wanted to not just absorb, but also create works by which I would have a window and a mirror. Something that reflected what I knew to be true and represented the community I come from.”
Victor Glemaud bodysuit. Schiaparelli earrings. To create a similar makeup look: Double Wear 24 Hour Gel Eyeliner in Turquoise and Emerald Volt, Pure Color Luxe Eye Quads in Indigo Nights, The Brow Multi-Tasker in Granite, and Pure Color Illuminating Shine Lipstick in Pampered by Estée Lauder.
The thought that her personal story is one worth writing about requires a bit of vanity, and when I suggest this, Gorman takes time to consider her response, looking up to the sky as if the words she should say are written there. But this is an interview not a poem, and she abandons the search for perfect phrasing. “It’s automatically kind of a vain thing to do, to say to yourself, I have thoughts and ideas that everyone should hear,” she begins. “But then I look around, and that’s what white men have been doing for centuries, and it’s called ‘leadership.’ It’s called ‘ambition.’ It’s called ‘inspiration.’ And when I do it, it’s called ‘vanity.’ I’m not necessarily doing it to just hear myself or convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. I’m doing it because I want to make a difference that goes beyond myself.”
In Gorman’s recent collection of poems, Call Us What We Carry, she weaves together words that represent the overall human experience during a year of extreme isolation and the Black experience in a time of racial unrest. This might sound grim, but Gorman infuses a great amount of hope into her work at regular intervals: “As a Black female poet, I think so many people expected my poems to be angry because of that schema. I’m like, yes, I have the right to be angry. But I wanted to really have freedom to speak with hope in the same way that white male poets get to do. Why can’t that voice of a people, a generation, come from someone who looks like me? Not too long ago, my ancestors would’ve been persecuted for reading and writing, and I’m the inaugural poet of the United States. If anything, as a Black woman, I feel like that makes me the most hopeful.”
That mantle, “voice of a generation,” is a hard one to carry, especially when you’re fighting the perception that everyone under 25 (Gorman is 23) is frivolous. “I think a lot of fingers get pointed at Gen Z,” she says. “But the word ‘woke’ in itself invokes this idea that you are willing to sit a bit longer with information and think a bit more curiously about history. That necessitates a long attention span. It also necessitates, I think, empathy and understanding as a human being.” And where is the frivolity in that?
On each page of Call Us What We Carry, you can see a balance between empathy and playfulness. The words flow on the page in different patterns, encouraging the reader to follow a rhythm — one entirely in chat bubbles, another paced out in the image of a fish. “I wanted the page to be my playground, playing with shape, format, rhythm, text, font, which are all kind of instruments that I typically can’t use in a spoken word performance,” Gorman says. And she educates her reader as much as she entertains. “For me, it’s not enough to write lines that sound pretty. The greatest challenge in my writing is doing all of that while bringing some deeper historical resonance with it.”
In some way, everything Gorman does has deep roots that she acknowledges — even putting on makeup. “I read about the history of makeup on the stage and how, in part, it was used as a storytelling device, especially [for a] larger audience,” she says. “[It] makes your features a lot more apparent to a watcher who might feel distant. And I knew that this inauguration, for many people, was going to feel less intimate because it was all virtual. So having vibrant makeup was a way for me to feel my best, but also a way that I wanted my face to make people feel a bit closer to me in who I was and what I was saying.”
Hours before rolling up to the Capitol that day, Gorman applied highlighter and berry lip color herself. “It was nerve-racking,” she recalls. “I had that really scary moment of standing in front of my mirror in the hotel in DC and being like, ‘I have no idea how to put makeup on my face because I’m so scared.’” But putting on her own makeup and styling her hair for the stage is something that she has done for years, for many different performances. Typically, those moments of preparation are filled with bold, feminist energy via the lyrics of her special makeup playlist (featuring Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, and Dua Lipa). Learning to do her own hair and makeup was a process that allowed her to get acquainted with and embrace her beauty. “When I first engaged with makeup, it was from the idea of personality — How does this represent me? — and also just, like, artistry and creativity. It was less about trying to cover who I was or trying to hide it, and more so trying to lean into that and elevate it.”
But on Inauguration Day, her Prada coat and vertically styled braids were also there to make a point. “The braids, too, were a powerful statement,” Gorman says. “I tried to play with having my hair go upwards, which, I think, is really a hallmark of Black hair. Everything about me, even my hair, my body, and my spirit is about defying gravity.” She was also honoring a tradition. “Thinking about the Civil Rights Movement, they marched in their Sunday best,” she says. “People were getting arrested and beaten with their hair done, with their clothes pressed, with makeup on. My ancestors were very intentional about using their appearance to counter the same forces that would say their appearance, or rather their skin color, should render them mute in democracy. So I really tried to honor that. I’m continuing a tradition of showing up to battle in the social justice theater of war as my best self.”
Make no mistake: What Gorman does with her pen is a battle of sorts and it puts her in danger with every quoted syllable and wave of her hand. Just two weeks before she appeared at the inauguration, a mob that included white supremacists violently attacked democracy just feet from where she had stood. I know I have been watching her rise with more than a little bit of fear. Historically, the world has been a dangerous place for outspoken Black women.
Y/Project dress. To create a similar makeup look: Double Wear 24 Hour Gel Eyeliner in Turquoise, Revitalizing Crystal Balm in Divine Crystal, and Double Wear Stay In Place Foundation in 6W1 by Estée Lauder
I love Afrofuturism. There’s something really captivating about sci-fi.
So I have to ask: Does she feel safe being spotlighted as a beacon of hope in America? “Do I feel safe? No. It’s very difficult, I’d say near impossible, to feel safe as a strong voice of color in the United States,” Gorman says. “Especially given the violence that we see on a daily basis, both psychological and physical. I try not to be controlled by my fear, but informed by it. So if I’m really afraid, I know this terror is telling me that there’s something to be gained from courage.”
Already a National Youth Poet Laureate, best-selling author, and inaugural sensation, Gorman recently added Estée Lauder Global Changemaker to her list of honors. It’s a first-of-its-kind partnership that will have Gorman doing much more than modeling makeup. As part of the deal, the beauty brand will contribute $3 million to Writing Change, a literacy initiative of which Gorman will be the curator. “I knew that if I was going to engage with a brand, I wanted to do it in a way that felt authentic to me,” she says. “I didn’t want to be constrained into the boilerplate ambassadorial relationship. I’m more than just a face. I think we can model a new type of relationship, one in which the women who engage in these beauty brand partnerships actually have agency, power that expands beyond themselves. Power that pays itself forward.”
Gorman wears her optimism on her sleeve, just like the Maya Angelou-inspired birdcage ring she wore to the inauguration. She has hope that her actions will change the world for the better. Knowing this, it doesn’t surprise me that music from The Avengers and Star Trek are on Gorman’s shoot-day playlist. The music soars as she poses in sculptural Schiaparelli earrings. These fantasy and sci-fi franchises feature heroes who set out with every good intention to make the world a better place. Somehow that fits well with Gorman’s own ethos. “I love Afrofuturism. As an activist and artist, I think there’s something really captivating with sci-fi because it means people thinking about what the world can look like but in a very real, grounded way. It isn’t ‘What if?’ It’s ‘What’s next?’ It’s really thinking about what could be.”
Photographed by: Djeneba Aduayom
Fashion stylist: Shibon Kennedy
Hair: LaRae Burress
Makeup: Joanna Simkin
Manicure: Yoko Sakakura
Set design: Evan Jourden
Top image: Chloé trench coat and bustier. Dries Van Noten bra. Jasmin Sparrow and Page Sargisson rings. To create a similar makeup look: Pure Color Luxe Eye Quad in Wild Earth and Metal Moss, Pure Color Envy Matte Lipstick in Deep Secret, and Pure Color Envy Kissable Oil-Infused Lip Shine in Clear by Estée Lauder.