the hill we climb.
If only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.
–Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
“We are where we are, with the huge bloody problem delicately referred to as ‘race relations,’ because of a history.”
–Charles R Lawrence III and Mari J. Matsuda, “We Won’t Go Back: Making the Case for Affirmative Action”
If you need some light in these dark and unsheltered times, go watch or re-watch Amanda Gorman’s performance of “The Hill We Climb” at the recent Presidential Inauguration. If the poem itself does not inspire, maybe the poet will. Watching that virtuosity and vision in a 22-year old gives me hope that we may be able to find a path forward.
But as we begin Black History Month, I am reflecting on how we understand the path forward in light of the past. That was a central theme of Gorman’s verse. It is also a perpetual site of conflict in our politics and culture. This tension is apparent even in Gorman’s words. Her poem is yet another entry in a long rhetorical tradition of American jeremiads.
The jeremiad is named for the Prophet Jeremiah, who warned the people of Israel of the consequences of failure to fulfill their covenant with God. From that scriptural origin, “jeremiad” has come to refer to a rhetorical denunciation of sin and the related call to reform.
The first American jeremiads originated in the Puritan sermons of early New England colonies. John Winthrop—in language that echoes in the title of Gorman’s poem—exhorted his Puritan congregants to consider, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
Within a generation, the Puritans were confronting the failure of their divine experiment. The jeremiad became a ritual means of purification, a coping mechanism for a religious community faced with its own moral failure and depravity. It consisted of three parts: 1) a scriptural precedent that established communal norms; 2) a condemnation of the current state of the community; and 3) a prophetic vision of salvation from moral failure that reconciles the discrepancy between ideal and reality. The jeremiad instantiated the American capacity for delusion and self-deception. It became an exhortation of low expectations:
“Even as the preacher exhorted, they knew enough about their listeners not to expect much from them…Theirs was a peculiar mission, they explained, for they were a ‘peculiar people,’ a company of Christianity not only called but chosen, and chosen not only for heaven but as instruments of a sacred historical design…In their case, they believed, God’s punishments were corrective, not destructive…In short, their punishments confirmed their promise.”[i]
The mutuality of sin and salvation purged the community of its guilt and implicitly encouraged its misconduct. The American jeremiad became a kind of rhetorical group therapy. It required nothing more from its audience than faith in its narrative. Belief, not action, was the prerequisite for salvation.
An example? Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Consider this passage in which he absolves Americans of their moral responsibility by abdicating their agency to God:
The Almighty has His own purposes. If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
Lincoln’s address satisfied a deep national yearning for a conciliatory moral narrative. His formulation followed the classic jeremiadic tradition by sublimating the country’s vice into virtue. God’s very engagement with American history was proof of its unique status. The horrors of both slavery and war proved the national march towards salvation.
But this is just one kind of American jeremiad. Another, the African-American or Black jeremiad, grew out of enslaved Black peoples’ fiery denunciations of white oppression. This jeremiad was not blind to American injustice and depravity. It bore prophetic witness to it.
For Black people in America, obvious parallels with the biblical story of Exodus countered white supremacist arguments that Black suffering proved their inferiority before God. Slavery was instead proof that the African-American community was God’s chosen people. Their suffering and hardship heralded God’s greater plan for the future.[ii] Reformulating the Exodus narrative, the African-American jeremiad provided assurance of the Lord’s salvation and nurtured a communal identity as a divinely favored people.
The early form of this African-American tradition was similar to that of its Anglo-American counterpart. But the tone and content were entirely different. The White Protestant jeremiad was a ritual of purification, an unfailingly optimistic prophecy of redemption. The (white) orator always addressed a “we,” his partners in a failing community. By contrast, the African-American jeremiad was a warning to the white, oppressive other. It served ritual purposes for the Black community, but its intended effect on white audiences was to persuade and admonish, not to comfort. An example? Think of Dr. King’s adaptation of the negro spiritual, “Go Down Moses,” in which he exhorted President Kennedy to “Go down Kennedy, way down to Georgia land. Tell old [Sheriff] Pritchett to let my people go!”[iii]
For much of our country’s history, these two rhetorical traditions existed in opposition to each other. They offered mutually exclusive views of America. But if you watch or read Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” you will see elements of both. It is not wrong to find comfort and hope in the midst of suffering and failure. But we cannot ignore history or evade its call to action. Belief in a brighter day to come is no substitute for acting to bring it about. As Gorman said,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
–Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”
[i] See Sacvan Bercovitch. The American Jeremiad. Madison: University of Wisconsin (1978).
[ii] See Albert J. Raboteau. A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. Boston: Beacon Press (1995).
[iii] See Keith D. Miller “Alabama as Egypt: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Religion of Slaves” in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Sermonic Power of Public Discourse.