Blair’s English department launched its 2019-2020 all-school read program with the selection of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America, a memoir by free speech activist Zachary R. Wood. Mr. Wood attracted national media attention as president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student-run group at Williams College that invited speakers with controversial perspectives to campus. In Uncensored, the 2018 Williams graduate details his troubled upbringing and the life experiences that inspired him to become a “crusader” for open dialogue, while also sharing his views on free speech, race and dissenting opinions.
A conversation with Williams alum Drew Litvin ’14 sparked English department chair James Moore’s initial interest in this year’s all-school read author. “Drew told me a few years ago about a Williams classmate who had written op-eds for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal,” Mr. Moore said. Mr. Moore ended up incorporating Uncensored into his narrative writing class in fall 2018, as well as introducing it, among several other works, to this year’s all-school read committee.
Mr. Moore and English teacher Molly Hoyer met frequently with the students comprising the committee. Lydia Richardson ’20, Ari Cobb ’20, Madeline McNamara ’20, Gabriel Ramirez ’22 and Ben Liu ’22 read almost a dozen books among them and discussed the pros and cons of the works.
“Uncensored is a great all-school read because it will inspire thinking and discussion about uncomfortable learning and conversation,” said Lydia, a returning member of the all-school read committee. Noting that Mr. Wood visited campus earlier this year for a Chapel and breakout discussions, she added, “The author has already had successful small-group conversations at Blair about getting comfortable with discomfort.”
“Our committee focused on gathering feedback to establish a well-rounded summer reading book,” said Gabriel. “Everyone was very talkative and friendly, and I hope to keep working with this group throughout my four years at Blair.”
Mr. Moore is pleased that book selection for Blair’s annual all-school read has become increasingly student driven, and he is looking forward to Uncensored becoming part of the School’s literary conversation in the coming year. “Zach Wood is an engaging 23-year-old, a TED talk curator and a living, breathing writer,” he said. “We teach many authors—and rightfully so—whose lives are far removed from those of our students. With this work, the distance between author and student is greatly reduced, and we hope that will prove inspirational for some of our kids.”
Mr. Wood writes about his years at elite prep schools and Williams College in Uncensored, topics that are sure to resonate with Blair students. However, Mr. Moore pointed out, Blair students will also get a look at the unconventional path that led Mr. Wood to these institutions, one that was characterized by curiosity and exploration rather than high test scores and loads of activities.
Plans are in the works for 2019-2020 all-school read programming, which will likely include a writer’s residency, an interview of the author by members of the all-school read committee, and workshops on memoir writing and conducting civil conversations among people who disagree. “Blair students already write mini memoirs for the Leadership Stories Project and their sophomore and senior speeches,” Mr. Moore observed. “I hope that in reading Uncensored, they will realize that memoir is a valuable literary genre.”
Most of all, Mr. Moore hopes that students enjoy reading Uncensored this summer simply because it is a good story. “From the beginning, that has been my top criteria for our all-school reads,” he said. “Mr. Wood tells the grippingly honest truth about his upbringing. Even though the deck was stacked against him, he wound up at Williams College, where he became a popular yet divisive figure. I expect this book to engage students who are already readers and inspire those who are reluctant to want to read more.”
Learn more about Zachary Wood here.