I recently joined PEN America—the venerable nonprofit organization devoted to protecting free expression—as the inaugural director of a new Florida office. As I gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week, I had many thoughts about the state of Florida.
Some may be surprised that my overwhelming thought was one of gratitude.
After all, PEN America is opening this office since Florida has become an incubator for censorship, with a pernicious model for book banning and restrictive laws like the “Stop WOKE Act” and the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law as blueprints for other states. PEN America’s latest report shows Florida surpassed Texas on book bans, with over 40 percent of all book bans nationwide occurring in school districts in Florida. Across 33 school districts, PEN America recorded 1,406 book ban cases in Florida.
Education is in the crosshairs of an extremist movement that wants to tamp down on free expression and censor classroom and campus speech. If that weren’t enough, Florida has attempted to ban drag shows, attack the trans community, undermine the free press, and impede Floridians’ constitutional right to protest.
Some would say it’s a dark day to be a Floridian.
For my fellow Floridians, we carry the burden of protecting our public education system and First Amendment rights for the sake of our children and the state we love, as the world’s eyes are trained steadily upon us. Those who seek to undermine our core liberties and wage an anti-“wokeness” culture war have made Florida ground zero for implementing a blueprint for censorship.
And while Florida may be leading the pack, it is certainly not alone. According to PEN America’s documentation, states across the country are banning books at worrisome rates and following Florida’s lead on passing educational gag orders and censorious legislation.
But all is not lost. Far from it.
Despite this onslaught, I have real reason for hope. I believe Florida will serve not as a blueprint for extremism, but as a success story that centered the desires of its people to protect our core liberties over an extremist minority.
Florida is one of America’s greatest melting pots—the third-most populous state with the third-largest immigrant population. We are home to those in exile, fleeing and rebuilding their lives when their own countries turned toward fascism and extremism. The strength of these Floridians is evidenced by their impact on their adopted state.
My home, Miami, is just one example. The influx of Cuban, Haitian, Venezuelan, and other immigrants has created arguably one of most diverse, welcoming, and exciting cities in the country. It’sturned Miami-Dade into a key capital city for Latin America and a beacon of cultural expression—including artists and authors such as Edwidge Danticat and Richard Blanco, among many others.
Florida's artists, authors, and activists have long led the movements for civil rights and LGBTQ+ equality in Florida.
In the 1950s, students from Florida A&M University, the number one public historically black university in the country, initiated the Tallahassee bus boycott and led a sit-in at Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter, where they chose to be jailed instead of paying a fine—creating one of the first “jail-ins'' in the civil rights movement.
In the 1930s and 1940s, authors such as Zora Neale Hurston provided pivotal insight into the realities of life for women, people of color, and the working poor in segregated Florida. Modern day authors, historians, and activists, such as Dr. Marvin Dunn, continue to lead the fight for academic freedom in Florida’s institutions of higher learning.
In my work, I have the privilege of traveling across the state and find the same thing in every county and town I visit—folks already doing the work.
There are grassroots movements popping up all over, such as the Florida Freedom to Read Project (FFTRP), started by a group of moms angry over the degradation of their children’s public school education. By shining a light on the reality of the book bans in Florida, this group has quite literally changed the game in Florida, forcing transparency on those who want to ban books and erase our history and identities from classrooms.
Many other parent groups are working to organize and advocate for their rights and those of their children. Educators are fighting to protect their careers and teaching licenses, and teachers’ unions are working not only to survive, but to make sure there are protections in place for Florida’s educators. LGBTQ+ rights organizations are fighting back against the homophobic attacks on homosexual and trans identities, expression, and existence. Communities of color are providing alternative spaces to teach black history and resisting the erasure of Black and other BIPOC experiences, stories, and identity.
These are but a few examples of the resilience and contributions of Floridians and the incredible strength that comes from its diversity and the celebration of diverse voices.
While a loud minority have taken up more than their fair share of headlines, less prominent in the news is the defense of the freedom to read and other rights being waged everyday by parents, teachers, students, librarians, artists, activists, and authors (such as the incredible contributions of the best-selling authors who banded together to fund the new PEN America Florida office). Floridians are alarmed at the undermining of public education, removal of books from libraries, and erasure of history—and they are pushing back with force against this censorship, especially the disproportionate targeting of works by, about or including people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.
When the Florida A&M students in the 1950s chose jail instead of a fine, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote them these words of encouragement: “There is nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom.”
That is the stuff of Floridians, individuals willing to come together, to resist and sacrifice, for the great cause of democracy. I’m grateful to live in a state where citizens raise their voices against attacks on our constitutional liberties of free speech and expression and to protect the diverse histories, experiences, and identities that make us who we are. And I’m thankful to count myself among them.
Katie Blankenship is the inaugural director of PEN America’s Florida office.