One of the most overwhelming things to face as an incoming freshman at the College of Charleston is the staggering amount of General Education requirements, one of which is a ‘First Year Experience’ course ( FYE) mandatory for all first year students. In an effort to consolidate credits, I registered for an FYE titled: ‘Banned Books’, as it satisfied my First Year Experience requirement in addition to an elective credit for my English major. As a course selection made out of pure necessity, I did not expect to be taught by someone so knowledgeable in such a distinct subject nor did I anticipate the enjoyment I would gain from taking this class.
The subject of Banned Books was just what the name suggests. Our textbooks were two separate essay compilations, listing popularly and unpopularly banned works of literature. We were required to write journal entries responding to modern censorship, read essays regarding the bannings of certain novels and create presentations on specific instances of suppressed messages. Prior to all of those assignments, however, we were assigned to listen to a series of TED Talks regarding the First Amendment freedom of speech. Censorship and the First Amendment are an inharmonious couple, and while much of the semester was spent learning a list of censored works, the rest was used to reiterate the authority of free speech in the United States. This course was not simply about the books or the authors, but about the issues that motivated society at the time of these bannings – it was a history, politics and literature class, simultaneously.
We read about the removal of Captain Underpants from elementary school libraries as well as the political state of China during the Chinese Communist Revolution. With every novel discussed, we were provided with extensive context surrounding its suppression. Banned Books, Professor Marjory Wentworth noted, “Is a window into other things going on in a culture…They said Harry Potter was the most banned book in the last fifty years. Well, that was also in a time when the evangelical Christian group had a lot of political power and a big voice.” As a course with a deceivingly specific title, the variety and societal relevance of the information taught surpassed all of my previous expectations.
Professor Wentworth stated that her goal in teaching this course was “to get students to understand that when books are banned or censored, it usually has nothing to do with the quality of the writing.” Wentworth has taught this course previously and noted that my particular class was more quiet than she anticipated, “but I felt like when I read answers to questions on quizzes and homework and group presentations…the things I was trying to teach, you were getting it. And that’s what teaching is all about.”
Ironically enough, as a professor of a course focused on censored writing, Wentworth is, in a sense, a banned author herself. As the Poet Laureate for South Carolina, she was tasked with writing a poem to be read at Governor Nikki Haley’s inauguration in January 2015, but it was ultimately left out of the ceremony. Although the declared basis for omitting her poem was a lack of time, she included lines about the Confederate Flag which was flown at the South Carolina State House during this time, leading many to believe that the controversial symbolism of that flag to be a more accurate reason for the poem’s exclusion. Wentworth said, “I sent the poem in and I didn’t hear anything. And then they said ‘We don’t have time for that.’” One of our final grades in the class was a paper in which we were required to discuss one of three censored works: Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and explain the grounds on which they were suppressed and whether or not their suppression was justifiable. While writing my paper on The Hate U Give, a fairly new novel that has received significant backlash for its inclusion of police brutality in a time where that is a common occurrence, I recognized the truth in Professor Wentworth’s belief that censorship is not about the books, but rather about the prominent issues in society at the time of its censoring.
Banned Books is not a course that merely lists off censored works of literature. It is one that teaches the significance of free speech and proves that censorship does not devalue writing. With a professor as dedicated to pushing these messages as Professor Wentworth, those with even the most remote of interest in literature or writing would benefit from this course.