Barack Obama’s inaugural poet envisions a post-Trump future: ‘We’re not back in the Brady Bunch house’

Clémence Michallon
·6-min read
Richard blanco is greeted by then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-President Barack Obama after reciting his poem during the presidential inauguration on 21 January 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Richard blanco is greeted by then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-President Barack Obama after reciting his poem during the presidential inauguration on 21 January 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Eight years ago, Richard Blanco stood at the US Capitol in an elegant black coat, a white button-down shirt, and a black tie. He had been chosen to read a poem at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. At 44, Blanco was the youngest poet to receive the honour. Being an inaugural poet meant walking in the footsteps of Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. He was also the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person chosen for the task.

After an introduction by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, Blanco took his place behind the lectern. The Capitol building – the same one which, eight years later, would be stormed by pro-Donald Trump insurrectionists – was packed with spectators and decorated to the colours of the American flag. Obama and his then-vice president, Joe Biden, were sitting right behind Blanco. It was under their gaze that Blanco briefly greeted the crowd, then launched into a reading of his poem “One Today”, a soulful, visual reflection on unity and love of country.

Far from an expression of naive, starry-eyed patriotism, Blanco’s poem engaged with the themes America was processing at the time. It referenced “the ‘I have a dream’ we keep dreaming” (a nod to Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 address, and the work remaining to do to address racism in the US), and “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever” (the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting left 20 children dead on 14 December 2012, a month before Obama’s second inauguration).

The reading, of course, was a moment of immense pride for Blanco. To this son of immigrants, whose parents left Cuba for Spain (where Blanco was born) before settling in the US, it also had a deep personal resonance. That Monday, 21 January 2013, was the moment he fell in love with America all over again – and felt America love him back.

“I turned to my mother and I said, ‘Well, I guess we’re finally Americans,’” he recounts on the phone eight years later, the emotion still fresh in his voice. “Otherwise, I was still like, ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure if this other person loves me as much as I love them.’”

Blanco – perhaps in true poet fashion – is prone to similes. He frequently returns to the idea that loving a country is live loving a person, with all the phases that long-term relationships can involve: “[from] the innocence and the infatuation to facing the reality and the facts and the real history, and feeling like you’ve been cheated on, to finally forgiveness and reaching some kind of more mature love”. The theme is central to his work: his latest poetry collection, released in March 2020, is titled How to Love a Country.

Eight years after his reading, Blanco sees the US as “a lot more divided” and “polarized” than it was back when he stood at the US Capitol. “It’s been a long time coming,” he says of the current climate. Back in 2013, he ended his poem with “a little bit of tension” – pointing to the hope that America might, one day, be “one”, and thus pointing out that it was not yet completely unified.

Richard Blanco reads a poem during Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration on 21 January 2013 in Washington, DCJustin Sullivan/Getty Images
Richard Blanco reads a poem during Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration on 21 January 2013 in Washington, DCJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

“The idea that I felt back then is that we’re still a work in progress, and I feel there is more work to be done now than ever before,” he adds. “There’s a lot of things that have collapsed. I think it’s more than divisions at this point. There’s a lot of institutions, a lot of trust that has failed. We need to do a lot of rebuilding and also reckoning with some of the things we’ve been sweeping under the rug for decades.”

Among those issues is systemic racism, which “we as a nation have not really dealt with fully”, police brutality and violence, mass incarceration, class inequities, and the sexual violence highlighted for the past few years by the #MeToo movement. He wants these to remain part of the public consciousness even as a new administration is ushered, and cautions against a “false sense of security” that America could be lulled into.

“I hope we don’t feel that all our problems are over just because we elected a new president,” Blanco says. “This is a pitfall that we often fall into in the United States.”

Poet Richard Blanco is cautiously hopeful as the Trump administration comes to an endJoyce Tenneson
Poet Richard Blanco is cautiously hopeful as the Trump administration comes to an endJoyce Tenneson

Blanco and I spoke on a Monday, less than 48 hours before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were scheduled to be sworn in. A sixth inaugural poet has been tapped into for the ceremony: Amanda Gorman, who, at 22 years old, will become the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. She follows directly after Blanco (Donald Trump did not have an inaugural poet in 2017). Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama’s first inaugural in 2009. Before that, Miller Williams was chosen for Bill Clinton’s second inauguration in 1997, and Angelou read for Clinton’s first inaugural four years earlier. The first inaugural poet was Frost, who read for John F Kennedy in 1961. The tradition, so far, has been observed only by Democratic presidents.

Blanco has spoken to Gorman ahead of Biden’s inauguration. He feels a sense of solidarity with his fellow inaugural poets. After all, as his partner Mark Neveu likes to say, “more people have been to the Moon than have been inaugural poets”. “She is amazing,” Blanco says of Gorman. “Even just on the phone, what a presence. What a humble, authentic human being. Such a dynamo, too.” He points out Gorman’s age and is heartened by the message he hopes her presence will send to America’s youth – that they matter, that there is room for them to develop their own identities, that there is “hope and strength and resilience” to be found.

“What was I thinking at 22?” he wonders aloud, and adds with a laugh: “Beer money. That was about it.”

As the Trump presidency draws to a close, Blanco is thoughtful, toggling between sincere enthusiasm and cautious hope. The overall feeling, he says, is bittersweet. “Bitter, because I have all these beautiful memories of a whole different kind of inauguration, and sweet, because I think this is one of the most important inaugurations in all of modern American history,” he says. “It says that democracy stood up.”

At the onset of Biden’s presidency, Blanco feels “a great sense of relief”, along with the knowledge that “a lot of work” remains to be done. “Let’s not forget the task at hand,” he says. “We got here not just because of one president, but because there are larger things happening that we have to deal with. And we just can't pretend that we’re back in the Brady Bunch house.”

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