Poetry and Politics

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMay 26


Terry H. Schwadron

May 26, 2023

By now, the successful one-parent challenge to remove Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem-book, The Hill We Climb, from elementary schools in Miami-Dade County in Florida have been chewed and processed as wild, upsetting excess of a MAGA-led revolt against reason and access to ideas.

Even adherents of stronger limitations on the thinking through books and lessons of what is deemed appropriate for exposure to young students seem to think a single complaint, even from a non-parent, that kicks off a legally required review sounds over the edge. Even a Fox News poll in April found that 77 percent of parents are extremely or very concerned about book banning.

On MSNBC, perhaps predictably, anchors were chortling as they re-read passages from the poem in search of anything that could even been seen as unsettling about the racial, gender-fluid or Otherism in the poem’s language. It just wasn’t there — leaving several to conclude that it was the fact that the author is a young Black woman who notes that she descended from slaves that must be to blame.

So, we are left to wonder why “parents’ rights” is a politically popular slogan when it means the opposite of helping kids to learn through lessons adjudged appropriate by age group. This ban fueled by a single complaint is made possible a hurtling, indiscriminate and ill-defined “anti-woke” campaign by Gov. Ron DeSantis, now officially a presidential candidate who wants to remake America in this Florida image.

The document provided by the actual complainant, Miami Lakes resident Daily Salinas, who has two children at Bob Graham Education Center, alleges that the work is “not educational,” contains indirect hate speech and should not be in schools. The complaint even incorrectly asserts that the author or publisher was Oprah Winfrey — who wrote the book’s foreword.

It is unclear what her problem was with the actual poem book. Making matters worse, The Daily Beast linked her to social media posting supporting the Proud Boys and the Je\wish Telegraphic Agency found posts of anti-Semitic tropes for which Salinas posted an apology saying she thought they promoted the Soviet Union, not attacked Jews.

Maybe she has a reading comprehension problem.

As NPR noted, during the school’s review, an eight-person committee said Gorman’s place in history as the first National Youth Poet Laureate and the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration give it educational value, but the “vocabulary used in the poem was determined to be of value for middle school students.”

Before we just sigh and grieve the moment, we ought to consider the wider context in our society.

Books as the Tip of the Spear

The argument that books with stories of obstacle demean our common American experience is wrong in fact, tone, and direction. Yet, over the last few years, the need to find blame in books is building on anti-school closing sentiments that persist even after the worst of covid has passed.

It is being conflated into broader issues of antipathy for teacher unions, support for taxpayer-paid school choice, re-introduction of religion in public schools in an effort to insist that America is white, Christian and that patriotism has something to do with whom you choose to love or associate.

But the values really being transmitted indoctrinate as much as the fear of Other that is the subject of book bans, just with a different value set in mind — preservation of American myths.

Books have come to represent the top of this particular political pyramid.

The Washington Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021–2022 school year with the 153 school districts that free expression advocacy group PEN America, has tracked. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.

That’s a lot of books. Indeed, The American Library Association, which does an annual report on book censorship, recorded the highest number of book challenges since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago.

The Post analysis confirmed that the main targets are books that mention LBGTQ or racial themes or characters. But it also showed that a large percentage of the complaints comes from a minuscule number of adults: The Post found active campaigns by individuals who filed 10 or more complaints were responsible for two-thirds of all challenges.

In other words, the drive to ban books is not a widespread political phenomenon, but rather a very active campaign. Moms for Liberty is a key group based in Florida that now has branches in at least half the states.

Book Bans and Politics

“By now, it should be blindingly obvious that many red-state book crackdowns are designed to encourage the impulse toward censorship,” argues Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent. He sees the DeSantis leadership as a reason for “measures that invite overzealous parents to hunt for books to purge.”

DeSantis himself felt compelled to address this issue anew as part of his somewhat media-botched presidential announcement. He insisted that no book has been completely banned in the state, and that the Amanda Gordon book remains available to middle-schoolers rather than elementary school students.

He left unaddressed his similar work to undercut what is taught through high school and even by universities. He ignored his generalized attack on public schools, teachers, and having sponsored — as in Texas and other red states — the idea of holding educators and librarians to civil and criminal charges if they cross his personal red line of censorship.

Another Washington Post columnist, Catherine Rampell, has written about the yet larger issue left unaddressed by this newest arrival to Republican presidential stakes — the general decline in literacy. “Every era has its bogeyman, the cartoonish villain who parents worry will corrupt their babies. Today’s fearsome predator, apparently, is the local librarian,” she has written. “But amid debates about how children will process texts invoking racism or sexual identity, a much more basic question plagues our educational system: whether children can process texts, period.”

Few are asking these same parents harassing local school boards for the insistence to declare what books reside on school shelves whether they are aiding their own children in learning to explore and synthesize the written word. Instead, we are enduring endless debates over what kind of federal laws should be enacted to protect children from perceived Chinese Communist Party ownership of TikTok.

Amanda Gordon’s sunny words about overcoming adversity and division — delivered days after Jan. 6, 2021 — are more than worth hearing and considering. Let’s stop this nonsense.





Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer