When Marjorie Wentworth starts her class at Banned Books at the College of Charleston, she jogs down one or two titles that share one annoying distinction.
They found themselves in the crossfire of the book ban. It is thus a ripe fruit, a fruit forbidden to eminent fighters and exerciser mothers. They are names with bold faces being criticized in social media streams, linked to calls to defund local libraries and fueling demands for action from school boards.
You might understand a version of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which explores pre-war slavery, has repeatedly found itself by those seeking to outlaw it, citing language and violence.
Or maybe you’re checking out the Harry Potter name. In the past few years, Voldemort wasn’t alone in standing in the way of a good game of Quidditch. Potter’s method with the magic wand is known to distinguish him as being against Christian beliefs.
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As the college heads into Banned Books Week, which takes place this year from September 18-25, Wentworth and his company are set to sound the alarms with an active discussion about why and how certain literary works turn out to be such lightning bolts.
Banned from the start
Since 2015, the College of Charleston’s English teacher has covered all of this and more in the classrooms for both freshmen and upper-level students. Most of them record because they love to read.
And in them they consider key moments, such as those involving the Harry Potter series of books, to be the most widely banned in America in the 2000s. It also folds into an international perspective.
Wentworth, an advocate for the 2020 National Coalition Against Censorship Against Free Speech, is a wordsmith in her own right. She is a former South Carolina poet no less. “The book ban began largely with the printing press,” she said, then included religious extremists.
“It is motivated by a kind of fear, and when people are afraid they don’t necessarily think the same way,” she said. These heightened feelings can be exacerbated by misinformation from organizations that individuals have not done a full research before responding to their rallying cry.
Many famous banned works are well-known entities, such as “1984” by George Orwell, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by J.D. Salinger, and The Catcher in the Rye.
“I think one of the most interesting things about banned books is, if you look at (the list of) historically banned books, you’ll find a lot of classics,” said Angela Craig, executive director of the Charleston County Public Library.
They are not immune to the movements of the modern era. In 1987, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book “The Great Gatsby” was challenged by the Baptist College of Charleston for its “language and sexual overtones.” In 2001, “The Catcher in the Rye” was removed by a board member of the Dorchester District 2 School in Summerville and declared a “dirty, dirty book.”
Businesses close to home have also come under fire. The 1962 science fiction novel “A Wrinkle in Time” by Ashley Hall boarding student Madeleine Langle, writer, was once banned. Among the books in the distinguished Supreme Court case, Island Trees Board of Education v. Pico, which in part served as the catalyst for the launch of Banned Books Week that year.
But Wentworth notes that this is by no means limited to the South. She herself fell prey to domestic censorship, if only because of a single work and not a book. Her poem “One River, One Boat,” which refers to slavery, was omitted from Nikki Haley’s second 2015 South Carolina inaugural program.
Banned Books Today
Wentworth said the book ban is a “window” on other things happening in the broader culture.
“If you told me this was going to happen in our country the way it is, a part of me would be shocked,” Wentworth said.
The drive to ban books has become increasingly politicized. 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 the subject of protests by the Fraternal Order of Police’s branch, Tri-Country Lodge #3, which objected on inclusion in a freshman reading list at Wando High School. In the end, the teachers kept the book adding other options to the list.
said Craig, who sees the public library as a collection of different points of view.
She argues that removing a book that is inconsistent with someone’s beliefs takes the opportunity or choice away from someone else who might benefit from it.
“If you start taking out that book that offends you, other groups have precedent to start pulling out books that offend them, then all of a sudden it’s a domino effect, a terrible domino effect,” Craig said.
Wentworth noted that political agendas and funding are often included, with websites and messages framed in a national language, as well as colorful red, white, and blue themes.
She asks students how many have experienced infighting between parents and school boards.
“Every child raises their hand,” she said.
This leads the chapter to the First Amendment, and how it was played out in Island Trees Board of Education v. Pico, Supreme Court Case 1982.
“The way these groups try to censor books or change curricula, or try to portray it as a patriotic duty,[while]suppressing information and learning, is anti-democratic,” Wentworth said.
Wentworth points out that marginalized groups have long been the target of book bans, especially literature for brown or black writers.
“I will pick up a book and ask them if they have read it, if it is by a brown or black writer. They probably have never seen it before,” Wentworth said. “It is amazing when we study Langston Hughes. They don’t know who he is.”
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Books by LGBTQ+ authors rank highly among the top 10 challenged books of 2021. At number one is “Gender: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maya Copape. Other films include “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Eveson, for LGBTQ+ content considered sexually explicit; “The hate you give,” Another novel by Morrison, “The Blue Eye”. and Sherman Alexei’s National Book Award-winning book, A Totally Real Diary of a Part-Time Indian Man.
Craig said the Charleston County Public Library holds “gender” in its adult non-fiction section, which doesn’t get much attention from younger readers.
“Another big misconception is that we buy whatever is out there. We have very strict policies and standards for developing collections,” she said, adding that with all the books the library carries, it is up to parents to make the right choices for their children.
Banned Books Week
This year, Wentworth is chairing the college’s efforts surrounding Banned Books Week. The annual initiative was launched in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to the sudden increase in the number of challenges facing books in schools, libraries, and libraries. The theme for 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 commission that will be open to the public, which aims to tackle the misinformation out there and dispel the fear that often motivates book bans.
Titled “Books Unite Us: Critical Debates on Book Bans and Issues of Academic Freedom and Censorship in the Curriculum,” moderated by Wentworth. Among the speakers is Craig. Anthony Green, 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; Kristi Wegman James, Media Services Coordinator and School Book Coordinator, Charleston County School District; and Jennifer Wright, professor of psychology.
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“The point is, what does this mean?” Wentworth said. “What does this mean for our children? What does this mean to teach them? What does this mean for our society, and, historically, what does it also mean?”
The college will also host a forbidden book read at Cistern Yard for students and faculty.
Wentworth said her students, for example, are open to finding out. “They want to understand,” she said.
For more information about banned booksweek, visit bannedbooksweek.org. To register for free on the College of Charleston panel discussion, visit bit.ly/3QLZcNB.