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FutureStarrAmanda Gorman's Powerful Message on Book Bans: Why We Need to Listen
Amanda Gorman criticized officials in Florida for restricting elementary students' access to her poem "The Hill We Climb," which she recited at Joe Biden's inauguration and which received praise from Oprah Winfrey and Lin-Manuel Miranda among others. Gorman became the inaugural National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and graduated honors with honors from Harvard College in 2020. Her performances have included events at the Obama White House, Library of Congress and Lincoln Center. What is a Book Ban? Book bans occur when libraries and schools take steps against books whose content offends an individual or group, by either withdrawing them from shelves and curriculums, or restricting access. Such actions violate the First Amendment which guarantees Americans freedom of speech and expression. At its extreme, books may be banned by court order; however, most book removals occur at the discretion of individuals and organizations who seek to restrict books due to ideological or political beliefs. While the term "book ban" is commonly used, its legal definition actually encompasses any restriction which violates First Amendment or Constitutional rights to read. Book banning and other forms of censorship have grown increasingly prevalent at all levels of government. Over the past year alone, efforts to restrict books from schools and libraries has grown considerably on a local and national scale, reflecting an expanding movement where legislators push educational gag orders which prevent discussions on contentious subjects. These efforts typically take the form of parent and community challenges against school boards, administrations or elected officials. Such challenges could involve books being removed entirely from classroom or library shelves; alternatively they could see them placed behind desks or locked storage areas - either way it still qualifies as censorship as it results in limited or diminished access for students and patrons alike. According to PEN America, over half of the books challenged or restricted each year contain content related to gender, race or sexual orientation. Many of these books feature writing by people of color or featuring LGBTQ characters and themes - reflecting an overall trend where certain groups attempt to limit information that their children and communities are exposed to - often targeting books which expose critical issues facing our society while violating First Amendment principles. Why Are Books Banned? Book bans are unfortunately on the rise. According to PEN America's report, at least 50 organizations across the nation - both nationally and locally - campaigning and mobilizing against book restrictions or bans exist across all 50 states and localities across America. These groups range in size and scope with some espousing views related to Christian nationalist political beliefs while others focus on reforming public schools or religious education reform initiatives as their mission statements. Most groups counted by PEN America were formed since 2021 with many operating at both state and local levels simultaneously. Books restrictions and bans may be initiated out of an understandable desire to protect their children. Parents often believe that restricting certain titles prevents kids from getting into trouble or experiencing negative experiences; however, banning titles rarely has this desired result. Instead, concerned parents should discuss sensitive subjects with their kids in a safe setting before arming them with all of the tools needed to make informed choices regarding what they read. Books may also be banned because they undermine a group's social norms or ideals, as in the US where books related to systemic racism and LGBTQ identities often face restrictions and bans. Such censorship limits students' access to multiple perspectives while leading to narrower understandings of American culture, history, and society. Censorship can be harmful, and we must fight back! There are multiple ways you can fight it: from contributing to Gorman's fundraiser and calling or writing school boards or cities who implement book bans to joining us in this fight! Keep in mind that the First Amendment protects each individual's right to expression -- including reading books that make us uncomfortable -- which means we need you as part of this effort! Join us! What Can I Do? As our nation grapples with an atmosphere of division and discord, Gorman has been speaking out about the need to come together as a country. Her efforts appear to be bearing fruit; her work has drawn renewed focus to book bans that restrict students' access to multiple ideas and perspectives. These bans have become more frequent across the country with some starting as a response to one parent's complaint. Recently, this was brought into focus when a Florida school suspended the reading of Gorman's poem "The Hill We Climb," which had been read at Joe Biden's inauguration, due to one parent's complaint. They also challenged four books in their library such as ABCs of Black History, Cuban Kids, Countries in the News: Cuba and Love to Langston. Book bans can be seen as attempts by parents and lawmakers to impose an ideologically biased vision of American culture, society, and history on children. According to educational experts, this can have the adverse effect of cutting out stories featuring marginalized groups or themes relevant to student experiences - thus restricting their appreciation of America's rich diversity both past and present. Vox reports that this surge in banned book bans can be traced back to Republicans' use of schools and parental rights issues as part of their culture wars rhetoric. As a result, Republican-run Florida has experienced both an increase in banned books as well as people challenging them. Gorman's call to action has received wide support among writers, educators, and activists who believe literature can transform lives. To combat censorship effectively you can make your voice heard by contacting local representatives or supporting PEN America or Florida Freedom to Read Project organizations - or donate books directly to libraries in need. The book-ban crisis won't go away anytime soon, but we can all play a part in its resolution. By joining Gorman and other advocates who defend our right to free expression in standing against censorship, perhaps in time the tide may turn and censorship lessen. How Can I Help? Gorman has taken action after one Florida school restricted access to her work. A parent at Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes complained in March about The Hill We Climb, a poem she read at President Biden's inauguration in 2020, alleging it carried "hate messages," could cause confusion and indoctrinate students. After receiving this complaint, Bob Graham Education Center moved the book from elementary to middle school shelves as reported by records seen by Miami Herald and Florida Freedom to Read Project. This move is part of an increasing trend across Florida and across the country where Republican lawmakers have used state legislatures to restrict student access to books related to systemic racism, social justice and LGBTQ issues. According to Vox's reporting, book bans - often initiated by one parent who objects to an item in question - are depriving children of valuable lessons about American history and culture. Gorman posted her dismay on Instagram. The school did not revoke or outright ban her work - they simply moved it to another area of the library - prompting anyone to contact the school to demand it reinstate her poem. PEN America, who published Gorman's collection of poems, released a statement in support of her against book restrictions. According to their statement, an item is only considered banned if removed completely from library shelves and students no longer have access to it. Gorman posted on Instagram the official letter she received from the school regarding a complaint made about her book, explaining it contained content not suitable for elementary school students and was restricted. Additionally, in separate post she pointed out how one complainant misattributed Oprah Winfrey as author of one poem while others misattributed another one entirely; "depriving children the chance to explore literature is an affront to free thought and speech", writes Gorman.