N.M. Campbell

The Hill We Climb

On inauguration day 2021, the solitary moment that moved my expatriated heart was Amanda Gorman’s recitation of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” Her words penetrated the English-speaking world’s hearts. The international press mostly gazed upon the poet’s artful attire. The young woman at the podium was surrounded by dashes of red, a lot of blue—but mostly a sea of gray. Vibrant in yellow and red with delicate threads of gold, she sang like a triumphant bird in a syncopated song about the possibilities of freeing the caged. Just as Maya Angelou had captured the pulse of another inaugural morning, Gorman provided an updated prognosis. [n]Inaugural poets: Maya Angelou recited “On the Pulse of Morning” on January 20, 1993. Decades later, Amanda Gorman took the podium delivering “The Hill We Climb” on January 20, 2021.[/n] Unlike Angelou’s notes, however, Gorman’s evaluation of the patient’s chart suffers from a lag in translation.

Academics, naturally, have started to pull apart Gorman’s work. By dint of this research, videre licet, extrapolation, those who are privy to the jargon and the citation style will learn even more. Inaccessible from a librairie tower essays are written, having been crafted from one like the aristocrat who coined the genre in the sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne. His world was in a state of upheaval; the introvert used his tower of books to source his opinion on the tumult from his lofty windows in the mountains. Even in early modern French, however, his words are at least engaging, by dint of interest, viz., wordsmithery.

From a tower, academics pen for voluminous journals hidden behind paywalls. Meanwhile, bloggers are advised to limit their argument to as many as 1500 words to keep a reader’s attention. News publishers embed videos, supplying demand for the ever-decreasing attention span. Everyone else exchanges barbs limited to 280 characters. Some merely swap memes without reading them. It is a sound byte world, powered by social media and, for the nominally more curious, Wikipedia—even in the hallowed halls of academia.

Perhaps a different genre is needed, say narrative academic nonfiction. Leaving the parenthetical citations behind in recognition of an increasingly digital audience, this essay—written from a first-floor window in Holland—will focus on translation. Setting the mood for poetry, though, a meal: The base of the stew is history, served without the (dry) meat most people cannot access anyway. As this table is set in 2021, an iPhone is permitted; i.e., if a concept is puzzling, look it up like everyone else.

The reading public the world over, from both tower and town, is hungry for this contribution to the literary canon. Some of them wait as the agitation swirling around this poem’s translations risks washing the timeliness of its timeless lessons away.

In the Netherlands, publishing for 23 million Dutch readers worldwide, there were protests about the translator. Of issue was whether the non-binary poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld could understand the struggle personally enough to find the best from 460,000 woorden to describe the trajectory of those denied personhood. Regardless, gazing through a Dutch window it is clear why there is a legitimate problem with a White person leading this effort. With plenty of Brown people walking down the street, surely there might be one bilingual poet who has experienced life abroad, maybe in Suriname or South Africa? Dutch is difficult to master, so it would help to have been educated in a witte scholen rather than a zwarte one, too.

Across the border, the poem’s German publisher assigned three women to translate. Kübra Gümüşay, Hadija Haruna-Oelker, and Uda Strätling reflect the diversity more easily found in a readership of 130 million German speakers of 800,000 Wörter. The German Empire’s numerous colonies were reassigned after WWI. After WWII, the rebuilding effort required foreign workers like the Türkisch and even American soldiers—some of whom made new German-Americans.

Further south in Barcelona, the translation is stalled for about nine million Catalan speakers of a language with 88,500 paraules. These words weresuppressed by a fascist dictator until 1975. Today, immigration to this prosperous Spanish province of Catalonia consists of the usual global crowd, but is primarily composed of those coming from former Spanish colonies in South America, speaking Spanish palabras.

Catalonian history and demographics make this quest for the right translator more complex, but it was more than just the translator’s reflection of the ivory tower that was too clear. In his own defense, in spite of his pay for his unpublished work, Víctor Oboils insists he is capable of translating Homer without actually being an ancient Greek man and Shakespeare without really being a sixteenth century Englishman. Viking hired him. Then they specified the need for an activist woman with preferably African-American roots, because it is still unclear that are certain stories untold in voices unheard.

Gorman’s poem shows that there is more to the story than the víctors who wrote history have described. She weaves through the warping of these obscured layers. History repeats itself endlessly. It changes direction when there is an awareness of why there is a repeating flaw in the pattern. Ultimately, someone observant hones in on the source and comes along to reset the loom. Gorman has done just that in 710 spoken words in English—layers of it.

Although many Europeans speak the current lingua franca, English is still a tricky language. Most begin with the Queen’s English in grammar school. Thereby, new learners are exhausted by using The Oxford English Dictionary and some of its nearly 600,000 entries. Translation, however, takes more than finding words in piles of dictionaries. Having encountered a myriad of Europeans speaking English, the ultimate step in English language acquisition is conquering Americanisms. These are not always included in either side of the pond’s accountings of English words. The United States compares in size to the continent of Europe where there are more than 50 official languages—including Latin, presumed dead. Exceptionally, the United States has no official language. Often presumed to be English, it sounds more like the Tower of Babel. [n]The Bible, Genesis 11:1-9.[/n]

Americans seem to scream and not listen a lot more than usual lately. One hashtag begets its contrarian version; #BlackLivesMatter has many opponents. As the United States unravels, it befuddles the world, one new Americanism at a time. Often as the only American in town, I serve as an intercontinental translation device, updated regularly. Living abroad on and off since 2001, I have seen my neighbors’ changing view of this vast wilderness. Mostly, they saw me as a Cassandra as the gaze westward had been through a new prism—with a Black President. A few other things happened since then, but what never translated is how so many people are disregarded in a country seen as a beacon of opportunity.

Until the 2020 demonstrations concerning George Floyd’s murder, however, the real ugliness of this second face was obscured—or at least ignored. Glimpses made it into some, though certainly not all, American history books. A fourteen-year-old city kid on school break in 1955, Emmett Till whistled at a White woman outside of a country store in Mississippi. A local gang acting as judge-jury-and-executioner took umbrage. Whose face was worse: a child’s beaten, water-logged face or his brave mother’s screaming alongside the open casket she requested—so that the world could see what they did to her baby?

Meanwhile, churches burned. Everyday people were swung from trees. Pastors and leaders were assassinated. The cities, often a sea of Brown, revolted. But this happened far from the purple mountain majesties. Above the fruited plains, it was a curated vista. In black and white, photographs bit into breakfast newspapers. At the dinner table, footage of urban so-called riots blared on the nightly news. A short commentary about this little problem called racism aired on programs like 20/20, after the dishes were washed. It was over there—available in easily digestible bites, according to taste. Ripping guts mostly focused on good lives lost; the mythicized model minorities wasted were just like the kids sleeping upstairs.

Then in 1991, grainy footage of a man named Rodney King made it onto the burgeoning 24-hour news cycle. A beat down that was filmed from a helicopter in pursuit of a chase, however, is not as palpable as hearing a man’s last breaths calling out for Mama continues to be. In 2020, George Floyd’s neighbors filmed four officers acting as judge-jury-and-executioner while the crying crowd pleaded for that stranger’s life.

That moment was a confluence of two mighty streams: Waves of ubiquitous distrust of all previously trustworthy sources—the police, the press, and politics—crashed against improved access to data plans with smart phones. Their cameras do not obscure the room, but rather read it, capturing the mood in digital revolution. A man’s most intimate 9:29 of his life was filmed to prevent yet another warped Ecce Homo.

On what has become a primary news source, late night comedy, Will Smith proposed an old-fashioned bumper sticker or a modern hashtag: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed. [n]Will Smith was a guest on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ on August 2, 2016.[/n] Had Floyd’s final moments not been viewed continuously, the incident would have just been another entry on the police blogger. Before, only the good or sensational victims of police violence made headlines. Now, headlines do not matter; what is between them does. This makes understanding this twisted pillar We the People turn even more complex than it already was.

So, how does another society translate what is left between the lines in a place “where a skinny Black girl / descended from slaves and raised by a single mother / can dream of becoming president / only to find herself reciting for one?” Working with 710 words makes word choice crucial. Why is being “skinny” important? While the poet is lithe, there is more to that story. Even with the global infusion of American music, film, and social media, however, there is a lot lost in translating America. The untold stories in unheard voices, after all, are unknown.

Why? There is intrigue in the fairy tale of the American Dream, and it is not fit for theaters near you. The streets paved with gold are whitewashed and their maintenance persists. This persuasive image was upheld by countless generations of immigrants arriving and conquering. Some, however, arrived in chains inside slave ships called “the belly of the beast.” Even after freedom, their progeny remained bound by countless medieval notions. At the dawn of the American Republic, early settlers had one foot in the Middle Ages and another in the Modern Era. Therefore, the proverbial path was not so shiny for everyone.

It improved in small bites after the ancestors of the slaves who powered the early American economy, on paper, started to receive equal access to education—in 1954. In 1960, “a skinny Black girl” Ruby Bridges, six, was escorted to school through a baying crowd. Led by her mother and the National Guard, the little girl was not completely “interrupted by intimidation.” Norman Rockwell, painted the scene in 1964, calling it The Problem We All Live With. We still do.

In 2020, Justin Howard was hit by less-lethal beanbag munition, suffering a head wound. [n]The Texas Observer has published independent investigative journalism since 1954. Read more at: https://www.texasobserver.org/defund-reform-rebuild-police/ .[/n] Howard, 20, was a political science student at Texas State University. He was exercising his rights which he had learned from the source—the U.S. Constitution and its analysis. He threw a bottle of water; he lost his head. His potential is “interrupted” by brain damage. Another busted skull left another oppressive stain on these golden streets, idolized as they are.

Murders and other so-called less-lethal injuries are catalysts now caught on camera. No longer disparate statistics from Austin to Minneapolis and beyond, the blood flowed like a river from the boulevards to the byways of the entire country. Seeing red, the landscape changed. It was streaked with blood and littered with masks, milk, and spent pepper spray canisters. Light shined directly on the tumult—through the lens of a live feed, beamed around the globe. In the wake of COVID-19, the rest of the world felt like a captive audience, watching from their sofas as America unmasked its most wicked face.

“The Hill We Climb” was written in light of one of the most confusing moments in a large country about which the world thought it knew everything. To complicate matters further, a flurry of opinions from journalists to bloggers to meme-makers flood the Internet, icing minds from the ability to parse real from deep fake. Gorman’s work recognizes the entirety of what led to these recent events—and threatens to continue unaddressed.

This concept of the United States as a golden-street laden beacon of opportunity was based on founding myths of the American Republic. The colonials, themselves colonizers, raised a mighty stone against a Goliath: Playing David was a hugely tall Virginian named George Washington. The dual-headed gorgon of Church and State, the British, was defeated by this native son and gentleman farmer. Therefore, everyone was free to believe as they wished as granted in the First Amendment. Granted sacred status, Amendments are capitalized, and remain capitalized upon—depending on the trending current. 

When the republic was born, however, it had flaws. Not everyone was free. Slaves, so-called other persons, were quantified as three-fifths of a man for taxation and representation purposes. The indigenous Americans did not count at all and were not taxed, by the taxman at least. This compromised the new country’s idealism. [n]Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution.[/n] All men are created equal, except for those exchanged as commodities.

The freedom to speak against an elected leadership was doubly sensational, if permitted the vote. These otherwise progressive ideals were not divined by those called the Founding Fathers in a vacuum. These radical concepts were wildly supported from foreign influences equally devastated by endless wars, mainly over the conservation of monarchical power and religion.

There are few notable examples of this initial global interference in American politics. The bridge that divides Queens from Breukelen is the Kosciuszko Bridge. Revolutionary hero Tadeusz Kościuszko was born in Poland—now Belarus, and is a hero in all three places. His unaccented surname crops up in fields he never saw in Mississippi or Indiana. These places’ names were borrowed from and assigned to the indigenous Americans, some of whom also participated in this revolt—choosing between two conquerors.

There is a statue of Kościuszko and other European allies assembled together against a tyrant, then the British. This patch of green between the White House and St. John’s Church, today with a lingering nose of tear gas, was named for a French general. The Marquis de Lafayette not only fought battles, but he also hobnobbed with the early American intelligentsia at Martha Washington’s revolutionary mixed Republican Salons. With no boudoir to which only women could retire, ladies and gentlemen sensationally discussed politics—together!

The Republican Salon was three-fifths mixed, too. Venus, the President’s sister’s slave, receives no official mention despite being a part of the President’s inner circle since 1784. “Register of Freed Slaves Bares Fairfax County ‘Roots,’” was published in the Washington Post. Thomas Grubisich covers research about Venus’s connection to the Washington family. The article was published on February 8th, 1977 on the tumultuous tailwinds of Alex Haley’s fiction-as-miniseries “Roots” aired on January 23rd, 1977. 

In 2004, a book was quietly released. I Cannot Tell A Lie: The True Story of George Washington’s African-American Descendants was published as fiction. Historians’ reviews and interviews tend to lend credence to Linda Allen Bryant’s family’s oral history, but in the absence of scientific evidence, they shy from accepting the author’s ancestral claims. The New York Times Review of Books permitted the only publisher that accepted the manuscript, iUniverse Star, a two-page advertorial on February 20, 2005, the eve of Presidents’ Day. The national holiday was originally in honor of Washington’s birthday. In 2005, the influential book review legitimized it, for pay. In 2021, the book’s genre should be changed to narrative nonfiction, inching up the hill.

Upon his mistress’s death, Venus’s child West Ford was exceptionally granted inoculation against smallpox, an apprenticeship in preparation for freedom, and 160 acres of land adjacent to the President’s estate. The family’s neighbors, The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, guards the relics of the first President—his hair. Thereby, they deny that which was genetically proven on behalf of the descendants of President Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemmings, another “skinny Black girl.”

The original presidential mansion was chopped down in 1856; in its place sits a wing wall for the Brooklyn Bridge. At 3 Cherry Street, this guesthouse was in the middle of the growing port of New York. The first capital was crowded; therefore, the first President moved it to a leafier Philadelphia, conveniently downstream from where he famously crossed the Delaware River. But the legend of the cherry tree remains. When Washington was six-years-old, he was given a hatchet. Then he hacked at his father’s cherry tree. When discovered, his father asked him what he had done. They say young George said, “I cannot tell a lie… I did cut it with my hatchet.” The rest of the flowery myth blossoms with Washington’s father rejoicing that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.

Gorman helps to recall the idealized volition of this epoque, using a unifying language. “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” Gorman references 1 Kings 4:25, describing the peace under that king, Solomon. The rest of the chapter describes a wise and honest king ruling over sacred land where tribes lived peacefully side by side, each worshiping their own God.

There is yet another language in America, Scripture—itself in translation. Codeswitching between the sacred and the profane is natural in a quantifiably religious America. The Word is also conflated with patriotism: Washington, D.C. was planted with cherry trees and is littered with blossoms at springtime.

By 1789, however, Lafayette went back to Paris to revolt, first by replicating Mrs. Washington’s political salon—co-founding le Club de 1789. But then the Enlightenment devolved into the Terror, and it was off with divine and temporal heads. The initial momentum of the Enlightenment and the Terror influenced burgeoning nationalism and nations. Opinions came from all corners of the map. This two-dimensional piece of parchment, mainly over Europe, encapsulates the confines and confined of that eighteenth-century world—charting part of the reason why the American Republic was incomplete by two-fifths, then. The connotation of the word compromise has changed over time, but the compromised remain everywhere—as does the juxtaposition of enlightenment and terror.

Thus, this poem needs to be translated—now. Like when the dawn of new republics bloomed, the world is interconnected by familiar stories all emerging from a similar background—tapestries patched by the victors, upsetting the loom. The early American weavers were not exceptional: Colonialism is driven by willing emigrants willing to use the conquered. What defines American Exceptionalism is that tides of unwilling participants were imported as the indigenous people were slaughtered, interrupting their Destinies to Manifest. The distortion of this supposedly unique trajectory is maintained by disregarding those who are dehumanized by the process. People anthropomorphize concepts and forget to assign the same to humans, according to taste.

This story of humanity needs to be told, and soon. On a chilly January morning in 2021, Gorman recited her poem before the new Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris. Before that day, the former Senator was “a skinny Black girl” bussed to school in California as it desegregated, like Ruby Bridges before her in Arkansas. The three women were led by formidable mothers towards education. Buzzwords like school vouchers and charter schools extend this gangplank from the poop deck of the “belly of the beast,” so there is likely another “skinny Black girl” struggling to “rise.”

How many more layers of obfuscation, viz., patches by the victors who write history, does the story need to emerge into the light? Gorman asks, “When day comes we ask ourselves, / where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” Finding shade under one’s own magnolia tree protects from a “sunbaked south.” It also refers to throwing shade. This resentful disrespect causes the recipient of this shade to take umbrage. In Latin, umbra means shade.

Lest this poem be lost to schadenfreude, “The Hill We Climb” deserves better than all of this shade about Black pain. Yet, there is frustration over who, singular, should translate “The Hill We Climb.” The German publisher, Hoffmann und Campe, had a bright idea: They gathered three women because “The Hill We Climb” requires the best and the brightest, plural. While this might seem like another delaying complication, the results have cancelled the noise, promoted the poem’s message of unity, and honored the work.

And who are we, exactly? That depends, but there is a hint within “The Hill We, plural, Climb.” The team should be polyglot, knowing English and their own societies’ languages, official and otherwise. Someone should be a poet and another an activist. Someone needs to be an academic with access behind paywalls. All need to understand how it feels to be less-than in that society and has seen how it looks abroad.

Poetry connects emotions and in translation is as complex as joining two sides of a brain. A neurosurgical operating room functions as a team and the subject of this poem is critical, despite constant monitoring of the pulse—morning, noon, and night. Piling up at triage are other high-profile patients presenting with similar symptoms: Currently the United States is a broken mirror and the audible crack shook the world’s frame loose, too. Translations reflect just as much about their own society’s qualms as they explain the issues facing the original audience. With pandemic anxiety, the world’s psyche is changing. It is locking down and personalizing everything, as the only face in the mirror is one’s own.

Prominently emerging from the shards of the American looking-glass are the stories from the less seen and not heard, like those from “skinny Black girls.” Gorman dropped the proverbial mirror. There is a reason she is unapologetically asking for certain people to piece it together in translation. Because, emerging from between the lines there are comparable others who have fallen through the cracks in every society. Some are still actively pushed into the cracks.

These voices can fill in some of the missing parts of the total story in real time, helping us all to reset the loom and salvage the mirror, if we dare. Therefore, for Venus’s sake, take oral histories seriously. She was not willingly a mother to a President’s unrecognized child. Do not let this testimony rot like an uncollected rape kit.

Collect stories from those similarly affected by this universal plague of hatred born of ignorance. Legitimize them now. These often-unheard people can help explain differences—and, in keeping with Gorman’s hopeful tone, similarities. The translation is then tailored to its audience by starting a cross-cultural conversation—the intention of the poem, but albeit one with less shade.

In this good-faith effort “we can trust;” E pluribus unum—out of many, one: A total story is necessary to mend broken bridges across this “sea we must wade.” Afterall, “it’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.” The message of “The Hill We Climb” is both specific and universal. Gorman’s spoken words deserve better—even if it is a difficult hill to translate. So what if it is too challenging? As she describes so eloquently, it has already been too arduous. It is how we, whomever that means, rise to the task that will continue this interwoven epic.

After a career in antiquarian books, N.M. Campbell expatriated from America. The author lives in an old house with a handful of antiques, a tiny kitchen, thousands of books, and a giant Maine Coon who permits people to live there.