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Poet Amanda Gorman says she writes "about hope, so that I can directly challenge that stereotype that black women are just wedded to fury.” Above, she performs at the AltaMed "Power Up! We Are the Future" gala in Beverly Hills in 2016. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AltaMed
Make Me Smart Question

How Frederick Douglass taught Amanda Gorman how tech can be a tool for social justice

Shara Morris Oct 25, 2019
Poet Amanda Gorman says she writes "about hope, so that I can directly challenge that stereotype that black women are just wedded to fury.” Above, she performs at the AltaMed "Power Up! We Are the Future" gala in Beverly Hills in 2016. Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AltaMed

Every week on Make Me Smart, we ask an expert, celebrity, author or other prominent person: “What’s something you thought you knew that you later found out you were wrong about?” It’s called the Make Me Smart Question.

This week, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman looks to an unlikely source to understand how to employ tech for social justice.

Courtesy: National Parks Service

“Something that I thought I knew … was I actually always thought of Frederick Douglass as this figure for literature and words and the power of understanding language basically. And it wasn’t until I dug further into his history that I actually discovered that Frederick Douglass was the most photographed man of his time. Frederick Douglass was very intentional with the photographs he took. It wasn’t random that this man who had actually been born a slave ended up taking more photos than the president of the United States.”

Photography was a new technology in the 19th century. And Douglass used it to further the abolitionist cause. He sat for over 160 photographs during his lifetime, and in each photo, he made sure that it captured a counter-image to the black American stereotypes at the time.

Courtesy: National Parks Service

“So for example, if you look at his photographs, he’s never smiling. It was because Frederick Douglass was very intentional with rejecting the idea of the happy, jolly, merry slave. And how I internalize that in my own poetry … how can I be intentional with the imagery that my language is creating, and how can I use that to counteract stereotypes? In my own life, as a black woman in my own life, I’ve found people often place me in the archetype of the angry black woman, which is why I so purposefully write poems that are instead about hope, so that I can directly challenge that stereotype that black women are just wedded to fury.”

Gorman will be starting her senior year at Harvard University this fall. You can listen to her answer in the episode below.

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