Amanda Gorman’s poetry is more necessary now than ever before.
A day before I started writing this column, focused on Amanda Gorman’s transcendent Call Us What We Carry, the poetry collection suddenly collided with current events in an unwelcome way. A recent complaint from one parent in a Florida school district means the poem Gorman recited at President Biden’s 2020 inauguration, “The Hill We Climb,” is restricted from elementary-school readers there on the grounds that it “is not educational and [has] indirectly [sic] hate messages.”
The specific quote cited? Here it is:
“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.
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
If you’re having trouble discerning the “hate messages” allegedly woven into those lines, you’re not alone. Since announcing she is “gutted” by this decision, Gorman has received an outpouring of support (she enthusiastically retweeted a message from actor George Takei calling the Miami-Dade School System “cowards”).
In the past few years, I’ve come to realize that trying to parse such accusations as though they’re rational is an exercise in futility. They’re not made in good faith — a lesson that bears repeating in this situation, as it has since been reported that the parent who made the complaint against Gorman’s poem has ties to several problematic organizations herself, including white supremacists and anti-Semites.
Gorman’s book isn’t the only one to have been restricted recently. A database of “book bans and challenges in the United States 2021-2022” shows a list of 4,022 entries (repeats reflect a ban in multiple districts), including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.
While it doesn’t seem prudent to engage in discourse with people who feel such books are harmful, these needlessly aggressive actions do beg a different set of questions: How much are we willing to censor in the service of keeping an increasingly small, if vocal, faction satisfied? What are we willing to sacrifice?
Although I’m sure Gorman’s poetry was powerful before it was being suppressed by authorities, it now gleams even more strongly with the shine of truth.
“Pay attention,” she exhorts us in the poem “Hephaestus”:
In this era or error,
We’re re-raised among wreckage…
We labor equally
When we fall as when we rise.
Always remember that
What happened to us
Happened through us.”
Though this poem is ostensibly about the pandemic, it could be interpreted more broadly: As much as we might feel ourselves casualties of the whiplash we’ve experienced over the past few years, we’re also the instigators of that whiplash.
It’s hard to know what to do with this knowledge. Having grown up in an exceptionally liberal bubble, I feel guilty that I don’t expose myself to other viewpoints as much as I should. When I consider doing so, however, I’m intimidated by the acrimony and antagonism I discover (which is also present on the Left, albeit in different forms).
Again and again, I ask myself: Is it my responsibility to engage with people who believe me to be an inferior human being — someone less worthy of rights, respect, and dignity than they are?
If Gorman’s poetry does anything, it exhorts me to keep trying. It urges me not to be satisfied with the status quo; to continue striving for a more understanding, accepting world. I’m glad I’m not banned from reading it.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.