When Marjory Wentworth begins her banned books class at the College of Charleston, she pulls out a title or two that share a disconcerting distinction.
They found themselves in the crosshairs of a book ban. They are therefore ripe, and thus designated forbidden fruit for demagogic activists and experienced mothers. They are bold names lambasted in social media feeds, attached to calls for funding from local libraries and fiery demands for action from school boards.
She could grab a copy of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which explores prewar slavery, often found itself flagged by those calling for it to be banned, citing language and violence.
Or she could name Harry Potter. Over the past few years, it’s not just Voldemort who’s gotten in the way of a good game of quidditch. Potter’s manner with a magic wand is known to mark him as contrary to Christian beliefs.
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And as the college heads into Banned Books Week, which this year runs from September 18-25, Wentworth and company are about to sound the alarm through an engaged discussion of why and how. certain literary works become such lightning rods.
Banned from the start
Since 2015, the College of Charleston English Instructor has covered all of this and more in courses for freshmen and graduates. Most join because they enjoy reading.
They consider key moments in it, like those involving the Harry Potter book series, the most widely banned in America in the 2000s. It also bends in an international perspective.
Wentworth, who is an activist with the National Coalition Against Censorship, Free Speech is for Me in 2020, is a wordsmith in her own right. She is nonetheless the former Poet Laureate of South Carolina. “Book banning practically started with the printing press,” she said, implicating religious extremists at the time.
“It’s driven by a kind of fear, and when people are afraid, they don’t necessarily think the same way,” she said. Such heightened emotion can be compounded by misinformation from organizations that individuals haven’t fully researched before reacting to their rallying cries.
Many famous prohibited works are known entities, such as “1984” by George Orwell, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger.
“I think one of the most interesting things about banned books, if you look at (the list of) books that have historically been banned, it’s a lot of classics,” said Angela Craig, executive director of the Charleston County Public Library.
And they are not immune to modern movements. In 1987, “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald was challenged by Baptist College Charleston because of its “linguistic and sexual references”. In 2001, a takedown of “The Catcher in the Rye” by a school board member from Dorchester District 2 in Summerville called it a “dirty, filthy book”.
Works close to home have also been criticized. The 1962 science fiction novel “A Wrinkle in Time” by Ashley Hall resident Madeleine L’Engle has already been banned. “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” the 1973 young adult novel by Charleston native Alice Childress, was among the books in a seminal Supreme Court case, Island Trees Board of Education v. Pico, which partly served as the impetus for launching Banned Books Week that year.
But this is by no means limited to the South, notes Wentworth. She herself was the prey of local censorship, if only for a single work and not a book. Her poem “One River, One Boat,” which references slavery, was dropped from the program for the 2015 inauguration of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s second term.
Books banned today
Wentworth said the book ban is a “window” into other things happening in the wider culture.
“If you told me this would happen in our country as it is, part of me would be shocked,” Wentworth said.
The impetus for book bans has become increasingly politicized. And the battlefields are largely public libraries and schools.
In 2018 in the Charleston area, “The Hate U Give”, by Angie Thomas, and “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, were together the subject of protests by the chapter of the Fraternal Order of the Police, Tri-Country Lodge #3, who objected to his inclusion on a Wando High School freshman reading list. In the end, the teachers kept the book, adding more options to the list.
“It’s a core belief of mine, and then of the Charleston County Public Library … that the public has the right to choose what they read,” said Craig, who views a public library as a collection. from different points of view. .
Removing a book that doesn’t align with one person’s beliefs takes away the opportunity or choice from another person who could benefit from it, she argues.
“If you start removing this book that offends you, then other groups have a precedent to start removing the books that offend them and then all of a sudden it’s a domino effect, a horrible domino effect,” Craig said. .
Wentworth observed that political agendas and funding are often implicated, with websites and messages framed in patriotic language, as well as red, white and blue color themes.
She asks students how many have experienced infighting between parents and school boards.
“Every child raises their hand,” she said.
And that leads the class to the First Amendment, and how it played in Island Trees Board of Education v. Pico, the 1982 Supreme Court case.
“The way these groups try to censor books or change the curriculum, or try to portray it as a patriotic duty, (while suppressing information and learning, that’s anti-democratic,” Wentworth said .
Wentworth points out that marginalized groups have long been the target of book bans, especially literature by brown or black writers.
“I’m going to show them a book and ask them if they’ve read it, if it’s written by a brown or a black writer. Chances are they’ve never seen it before,” Wentworth said. “It’s amazing when you study Langston Hughes. They don’t know who he is.
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Books by LGBTQ+ writers rank among the top 10 contested books of 2021. Number one is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe. Others include “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, for its LGBTQ+ content considered sexually explicit; “The hate you give”; another Morrison novel, “The Bluest Eye”; and National Book Award winner “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.
Craig said the Charleston County Public Library offers “Gender Queer” in the adult nonfiction section, which has little appeal to younger readers.
“Another huge misconception is that we just buy whatever is out there. We have very strict collection development policies and standards,” she said, adding that with all the books the library offers, it is up to parents to determine the right choices for their children.
Banned Books Week
This year, Wentworth is leading the college’s efforts around Banned Books Week. The annual initiative was started in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to a sudden increase in the number of book challenges in schools, bookstores and libraries. The theme of this year’s event is “Books Unite Us. Censorship divides us.
From 6-7:30 p.m. on September 21, the college will host an on-campus panel open to the public, which aims to both tackle the misinformation that exists and dispel the fear that often drives book bans.
Titled “Books Unite Us: Critical Conversations on Book Banning and Issues of Academic Freedom and Censorship in the Curriculum,” it is moderated by Wentworth. Panelists include Craig; Anthony Greene, Director of the African American Studies Program and Associate Professor of African American Studies; Sandra Slater, director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program and associate professor of history; Christy Wegmann James, Charleston County School District Media and Textbook Services Coordinator; and Jennifer Wright, professor of psychology.
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“The point is, what does that mean?” Wentworth said. “What does this mean for our children? What does this mean for their education? What does this mean for our community, and historically, what does it mean as well? »
The college will also hold a Reading of Banned Books in Cistern Yard for students and faculty.
Wentworth said his students, for starters, are ready to find out. “They want to understand,” she says.