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Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman wants to save the world’s oceans

By Jake Howard

In one of my first columns of 2021, I wanted to start the new year with a message of inclusivity and remind us all that surfing has a magical way of bringing people together.

“In Hawaii, we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with ‘Aloha,’ which means love. Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawaii renowned as the world’s center of understanding and fellowship,” Duke Kahanamoku, father of modern surfing, famously explained. “Try meeting or leaving people with ‘Aloha.’ You’ll be surprised by their reaction. I believe it and it is my creed.”

Fast-forward about a century to last Wednesday, Jan. 20, when 22-year-old Amanda Gorman stepped up to the mic and, in front of a global audience, shared her words.

“We seek harm to none and harmony for all,” said Gorman, the youngest poet to read their prose at a U.S. Presidential inauguration.

Forget political affiliation, whom you voted for or anything else that is currently being used to divide us. In “The Hill We Climb,” Gorman’s words and intentions are pure: put down the differences and share a little aloha.

“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,” she continued.

Her poise, eloquence and grace at the podium were striking. But who was this young, strong, fresh-faced African American woman? Where did she come from?

Poet laureate Amanda Gorman follows the time-honored tradition of writers who surf. Photo: Courtesy of Textured Waves

Growing up not far from Inkwell Beach in Santa Monica—the only place for Black beachgoers during Los Angeles’ segregated past—Gorman struggled with a speech impediment in which even saying the word “poetry” presented a challenge.

Her now-famous poem was largely composed while under the pandemic lockdown in Los Angeles.

Inspired to make her voice heard, Gorman graduated cum laude from Harvard, and while going to school, also earned the distinction of being named the first National Youth Poet Laureate.

It seems fitting that she was invited to speak at the inauguration by First Lady Jill Biden, an educator by trade, as Gorman’s mom is a teacher in Watts herself. She also wants to run for President in 2036—when she’ll finally be old enough.

But, as I discovered while trying to find out more about Gorman, we coincidentally share a connection to saltwater. Scrolling through her Instagram feed, I found her 2020 poem, “Ode to the Ocean.” With the heart of a surfer, her words offer a forceful, impassioned cry to save our seas. In it, Gorman writes:

May the seas help us see healing and hope, 

May we sing out the ocean’s survival and revival. 

Being the people of this blue planet is our most 

Profound privilege and power, 

For if we be the ocean’s saviors, 

Then it is surely ours.

The day after Gorman’s inaugural debut, the group Textured Waves, which advocates for equality and inclusion in the surf, posted the above photo of Gorman on its Instagram feed. Getting her “feet in the wax,” as they say, clearly the stoke is on.

As Kahanamoku said, “Our water is so full of life.”

If you have a hot minute, go find “Ode to the Ocean” and give it a read. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that only somebody who has experienced surfing and the ocean in a transformative way could have penned such words.

Clearly, her time on a surfboard moved her. There’s a lot of aloha in what she has to say; we should all take note.

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including Picket Fence Media, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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