Transitional Justice and Inauguration Poems


Transitional Justice is a collective enterprise. Many transitional justice tools are legal ones: trials, truth-telling commissions, amnesties, government transparency laws, reparations, and lustration. While the state generally takes the lead and sets the tone, successful transformation also requires the cooperation, the creativity, and the faith of the community the state seeks to govern. Individuals who have demanded change must have optimism—that optimism must extend both to the state’s willingness to treat them fairly and equally going forward as well as the state’s ability to reckon with the past in order to justify their hope and eventual reconciliation. In addition to adjusting expectations about the state and fellow citizens, transitional justice requires the active participation of private citizens: victims, witnesses, historians, journalists, activists, and as increasingly recognized in the transitional justice literature: artists.

Why artists? Artists can use their skills to humanize and elicit emotional responses in ways distinct from other truth-telling mechanisms. Skilled artists can help change attitudes toward those excluded from or victimized by the prior unjust society. They can “also amplify the work of other transitional justice mechanisms.” In that vein, I want to explore two poems: one written for the performance at the inauguration, The Hill We Climb by the national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman and one written on the occasion of the inauguration ‘Inaugural’, an Original Poem by 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown.

How might these inauguration poems fit, or not, within the call of transitional justice? As my colleague and co-author Colleen Murphy has written, transitional justice “aims to redress wrongdoing, past and present, in order to vindicate victims, hold perpetrators to account, and transform relationships—among citizens as well as between citizens and public officials.” I experience the poems as in implicit conversation with one another—as both partial demands for transitional justice as well as partial performances of transitional justice. Amanda Gorman’s is the more hopeful, the more transcendent, the more unifying, while Jericho Brown’s is the more tempered, the more grounded, the more demanding. Read together, they provide a roadmap of the transitional justice terrain the government may choose to tread.

1. Identifying and Acknowledging Widespread Wrongdoing

One essential component of transitional justice is to acknowledge and understand what conditions gave rise to widespread oppression, inequality, and/or conflict. Gorman’s poem opens upon the enormity of the national trauma and broken status quo. She writes:

When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice.

Because Gorman keeps the trauma abstract, the reader (or listener) can infuse these opening words with more specific meaning. Is she referencing the most recent political turmoil related to the election; deaths, social isolation, and economic dislocation from COVID-19 and its mismanagement; or the underlying motivations for Black Lives Matter? All of them and more?

She then suggests that we Americans find ourselves in a transitional moment.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished. And, yes, 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 a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

In this verse, she notes that the state and its political community continue, but have much work to do in meeting the needs of its citizens. She also sets expectations, which is important for transitional justice. By definition, transitional justice is imperfect justice—it forgoes the aspirations of perfectly administered retributive or restorative justice in the interest of reshaping the political community.

In the American setting, no consensus yet exists as to the desirability of transitional justice or as to the scope of problem. Some believe no American problem exists for which transitional justice would be required. They deny wrongdoing or they deny the state’s responsibility for it. Others call for national unity and to move forward without looking back. For those, the best approach is silence and forgetting. Even for those who believe a reckoning must be had, no agreement has been forged on what exactly must be reckoned with. For some, the emphasis is on the immediate conditions of political insecurity. Gorman’s poem certainly references those recent moments, such as the calls to undermine electoral integrity and the Capitol Hill Riot, with lines like, “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. That would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy, and this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can periodically be delayed, but it can never be permanently defeated.” Gorman’s poem certainly has additional passages that speak to additional injustices, but I think it useful to isolate this section as indicative of the narrow scope that some want addressed. For a subset of those struggling with how to envision moving forward, the focus should be limited to a narrow timeframe and a narrow set of grievances: the unwillingness of those inside and outside the state to accept electoral certification, the refusal to accept court rulings as definitively resolving questions of fraud and irregularities, and the use of violence to attack a branch of government, its members and the electoral process itself.

Contrast this narrow view with Brown’s poem, which stresses the historical legacy of slavery and racism as the conditions necessitating transitional justice. He offers a much broader scope of the injustice in writing: “I, myself, have come to reclaim the teeth // In George Washington’s mouth and plant them / In the backyards of big houses that are not / In my name. My cousins want to share /A single bale of the cotton our mothers // Picked as children.” His historical horizon extends back to the founding—to the beginnings. In just a few spare lines about his and his family’s perspective, he outlines the lingering and still recently inflicted wounds of this country’s original sin. For him, we must go back to the beginning to forge a new start. Those who have been excluded and erased must be recognized and redressed.

If the United States chooses to move forward with transitional justice, it will find itself pushed to answer this question about the scope of wrongdoing. What are the harms that need to be acknowledged? Who are the victims that deserve recompense? Who are the wrongdoers to be punished? And equally important—what are the conditions that must be fundamentally altered and how must they be changed? Different citizens will surely have different answers, but the state must choose from competing visions of the wrongs to effectively develop a plan to transform, heal, and reconcile.

Related to this question of what to transform is whether transformation is possible at all. Many states before us have stood at such crossroads and many have not chosen the path of transformation. Transitional scholars suggest part of what is necessary is trust and optimism—a belief that conditions can change and that the state and its citizens are up to the task. In writing and performing her poem, Gorman did not merely hold space for optimism, she embodied it. Bedecked in a sunny yellow coat at an inauguration, a ritual of political transition, she not only ushered in the new administration, but she also provided some much needed hope to a country so recently under siege. She harkened to the past, but looked to the future in intoning,

In this truth, in this faith, we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us, this is the era of just redemption we feared in its inception we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour but within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves, so while once we asked how can we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us.

With such words, such promise, a better world seems within our grasp. She doesn’t merely offer a national unity in its purpose to author a new chapter and to do so with hope and laughter, she performs it in front of our eyes.

While transitional justice requires optimism, so too does it require tempered realism. Just as some must speak for our shared aspirations, others must remind us such optimism must be met by the not-at-all-inevitable hard work of transitional justice. Brown’s poem offers just such a sobering perspective. He speaks of himself and the others that have completed the difficult journey to the inauguration and notes, “We imagine an impossible / America and call one another/ A fool for doing so.” For transitional justice to work, citizens must believe in the possibilities of the state and of other citizens to do better going forward, but it cannot be a blind faith.

2. Accountability

This brings us to the second main component of transitional justice—accountability. Once the wrongs have been identified and acknowledged, those wrongs must be addressed and relationships between the state and its citizens and among citizens must be repaired and reconciled. For transitional justice, addressing the wrong and repairing relations are essentially connected. Repair and reconciliation come, at least in part, from directly addressing the past.

Gorman’s poem speaks much to repair and reconciliation, but very little to accountability. She ties the American project to this historical reckoning with the early line, “That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it because being American is more than a pride we inherit, it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.” Later in the poem, she writes:

So we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another, we seek harm to none and harmony for all.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left, with every breath from my bronze, pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one, . . . we will rebuild, reconcile, and recover in every known nook of our nation in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful, when the day comes we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid, 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.”

Given Gorman’s desire to fit within inauguration poems norms and to include all Americans within its optimistic ambit, I don’t find it surprising she didn’t focus on accountability. As an inaugural performer, she was likely extensively vetted, and I cannot imagine she felt free to call for specifics not approved by the Biden administration even if she wanted to. And I share her sense it might not have met the moment appropriately.

In contrast, Brown’s poem demands a national reckoning with the past. He is free from Gorman’s constraints in writing with the implied imprimatur of the state and performing at its behest during the leadership transition ritual. Thus, he celebrates not the change in leadership, but rather recognizes the possibility of reconciliation based on accountability. He speaks of the physical journey to the inauguration as “where what we believe/ Meets what must be done.” He offers up peacefulness, hopefulness, and forgiveness as he tells his story and the story of others. He writes:

I don’t want / To be hopeful if it means I’ve got to be / Naïve. . . . You’ll forgive me if you can / Forgive yourself. I forgive you as you build / A museum of weapons we soon visit / Just to see what we once were. I forgive us / our debts . . . . Where, then, // Shall we put our pains when we want rest? / I don’t carry a knife, but I understand / The desperation of those who do, / Which is why I am recounting the facts // As calmly as I can. The year is new, / And we mean to use our imaginations.

Note then that he calls for something in return. Reconciliation and repair cannot be one-sided.

But what is the appropriate response? Brown next acknowledges the limitation of simple retributive approaches with the lines “If no one’s punishment leads to / My salvation.” Punishment alone cannot “establish the legitimacy of the state and the baseline equality of all citizens in the first place,”it “cannot change the sources of racial oppression” just as poetry alone cannot change the American people even though it may change individual people. But if salvation is not what is on offer, he writes, “then accountability // Is what waits. It moves citizens, mends / Nations. / That’s for us to prove. That’s the deed to witness. / That’s the single item on the agenda / Read in Braille or by eye, ink drying like blood // This American hour of our lives.” He leaves open the question of what tools ought to be used and what form they should take, but makes clear that the state must answer this: “That’s the single item on the agenda.”

3. Never Again

In addition to acknowledgment of and accountability for past wrongs, transitional justice offers mechanisms “to draw a line between what was accepted in the past and what will be acceptable in the future.” For Gorman, she explicitly adopts the “never again” mantra we so often see in societies trying to transform after conflict and atrocity. She writes, “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew, even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired, we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together victorious, not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.” She continues “We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free, we will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, our blunders become their burden. But one thing is certain: if we merge mercy with might and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.” While Brown’s poem expresses much less certainty about the nation’s political trajectory, he offers us a devastatingly simple metric by which we might judge whether “never again” has been achieved and the success of the transitional justice. He writes, “I would love to live / In a country that lets me grow old. / I long. I long for that.” Under the surface of those few lines, one sees the effects of police brutality and carceral policies, of unequal access to health care and wealth, of the ineffective response to COVID-19 and its related burdens, of the toxic physical effects of racism. While longevity is certainly not the only measure of transitional justice, it ought to be a necessary one.

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