The transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month is an occasion for commemorating the contributions of Black women to our nation’s history—and to the very idea and identity of America. Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” continues a line of prominent Americans who have called the nation to reflect on the meaning and identity of America. A full appreciation of Gorman’s poem begins with someone not associated with either Black History Month or Women’s History Month—the seventeenth-century founding figure of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop. Winthrop’s call to early Americans to be “a city upon a hill” is among the first efforts to define America—to summon us to think about who we are and who we want to be. We are still climbing that hill. Gorman’s poem reminds us why we must continue the vital work needed to reach that sought-after city.
One of the earliest settlers to ponder the meaning of America was the Englishman Sir John Winthrop. Along with his fellow Puritans, he traveled across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Arbella in 1630 to a “new” England to flee the religious and political persecution of “old” England. Winthrop proposed that the meaning of this new colony was to establish autonomous and democratic congregations, independent and separate from a centralized English state church. Simply put, it was to represent religious and political freedom.
This new colony would be a “city upon a hill,” he famously declared in his “A Model of Christian Charity,” where the “eyes of all people are upon us.” His sermon was virtually unknown in his day but would amass popularity as a consequence of the Cold War.
Without knowing the U.S. would ultimately become an independent nation, this metaphorical “city on a hill” was a civil religious symbol for the national and religious commitments of a newly developing English colony—a colony that Winthrop hoped would eventually be an exemplar for English colonies throughout North America and elsewhere. Here, the church and civil society in partnership with each other were destined to carry out covenantal responsibilities for living together as one community.
This metaphorical “city on a hill” has been appealed to repeatedly throughout U.S. history. One of the earliest documented instances is Harvard scholar Perry Miller’s retrieval of the metaphor in his mid-twentieth century efforts to define and articulate the meaning of America. After identifying Puritanism as the beginnings of this incipient nation (even though Native Americans were here all along), Miller turned to Winthrop’s sermon and his symbolic phrase to assert both the purpose and distinctiveness of the American experience. In City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism, Abram C. Van Engen reminds us that after Miller, almost every U.S. president to hold office, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, recapitulated the phrase to proclaim and liken the United States to a “city upon a hill.” Ronald Reagan, especially, is remembered for building a powerful presidential platform by repeating this metaphor of American exceptionalism.
And so, without exception, this trope of American exceptionalism was again reinscribed when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman took the national stage in January to recite her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Her poem is especially significant because though we are a culturally pluralistic nation, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” is at times elusive for large segments of the U.S. population, particularly Blacks, other peoples of color, and even women. In other words, to actualize the message on our national seal, e pluribus unum—out of many, one”—requires a more arduous understanding of “the hill we climb” to reach that far-off city.
That understanding became paramount a mere two weeks after a failed assault on the U.S. Capitol when Amanda Gorman, the nation’s youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, assumed the monumental responsibility of speaking at Biden’s presidential inauguration and to the theme of “America United.” Yet, her early twenty-first century version of an “united America” would be very different from the nation’s English and colonial predecessors, where white and Protestant and male were the prima facie racial, religious, and gender categories.
Now, to reach that distant “city on a hill” will demand “the hill we climb.” Because a maelstrom of factors—political violence, racial and social unrest, a tenuous economy, and a death-dealing pandemic—have created special circumstances provoking the U.S. public and national leaders, alike, into making clarion calls to address this country’s fragile state and to heal.
Amanda Gorman has responded by being the voice that calls us to “close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.” She asks us to “lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.”
Gorman’s “city on a hill” further stands in stark contrast to the January 6 uprising “on the hill” of our Capitol, the sacred temple of our democracy. On that day, Christian nationalists defiantly waved their flags, even wielding them as weapons. As Gorman recited, in lines she wrote after the insurrection: “We have seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”
Immediately after the violence, though, political and thought leaders, cultural critics, social commentators, everyday citizens, and even foreign heads of state and diplomats incredulously intoned, “This is not America.” They rejected the idea that American identity is synonymous with sedition, violence, and, yes, racism. Yet, American history shows us that, in actuality, this is also who we are.
We had a Civil War—marked by regional, fratricidal battles that became one of the defining features of statehood leading to a crisis about what it means to be American. Threatening the breakup of the union was the secession of an entire region of the country over the issue of slavery.
“The Hill We Climb” delivers on the tensions created by the multiple and conflicting meanings of America—the hopeful and the sinful alike. At times dissonant yet revealing a cacophony of meanings, Gorman recites: “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made that is the promise to glade, the hill we climb. If only we dare.”
Such “daring” moreover seizes upon the tensions inherent to America being a representative democracy with its oft-times irreconcilable elements: a civic republic and a liberal democracy both fashioning a puzzling paradox.
This, too, is America.
And so, Amanda Gorman’s poem, her metaphorical “city on a hill”—one that we are still climbing toward—reminds us that this is also who we are. “Yes,” she says, “we are far from polished, far from pristine. But that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose.”
We are a nation guided by an American civil religious tradition, that while not monolithic, still ensures the visibility of diverse racial, religious, and ethnic national groups and communities. Dissenting from “a consensus model of culture,” the late historian of religion Charles Long pressed in his essay, “Civil Rights—Civil Religion: Visible People and Invisible Religion,” for an inclusive American civil religion, guided by a shared pursuit of justice, equity, and righteousness.
We are a nation that, though an imperfect union, still strives to fulfill covenantal responsibilities for, as Gorman reveals, “somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.” Covenantal responsibilities effectuate a common good and subvert individual wills to that of the group, calling forth a “we”-ness, a form of social belonging, that supersedes regional and racial differences as well as social animosities. “We will rise from the gold-limbed hills of the west,” the poem intones. “We will rise from the windswept northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.”
We are a nation that continues to be exceptional, despite our unexceptionalisms, where a politics of social belonging demands, in Gorman’s words, that we dare “not march back to what was, but move to what shall be”; where the common discourse and language of a spirited civic republic becomes the rudder for an American civil religious tradition of shared, yet diverse stories, that have not always been culturally available to all Americans—for national, racial, ethnic, and even linguistic reasons.
That those who were once excluded—a failure of American democracy—now feel the acceptance of inclusion from the east-to-the-west, from the north-to-the-south, and everywhere in-between.
This, too, is America.
National disunification threatens this America of which I am speaking—an America in need of Black women’s voices and advocates of its civil religion. Because Gorman lucidly and boldly claims: “We [are] the successors of a country and a time 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.”
Yes, this America is Amanda Gorman’s hopeful and renewed vision of America, that at the close of this Black-turned-Women’s History Month, sings as Langston Hughes did, “I, too, am America”—that “city on a hill.”
Nichole Renée Phillips is associate professor in the practice of sociology of religion and director of Black Church Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. She also is author of Patriotism Black and White: The Color of American Exceptionalism.