The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the Va. governor’s race, ‘Beloved’ is reduced to its most explicit parts. That’s obscene.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, after a debate on Sept. 28. (Cliff Owen/AP)

“124 was spiteful.”

So begins Toni Morrison’s classic novel “Beloved.”

But the spite in that house at 124 Bluestone Road is nothing like the rage tearing apart the state of Virginia this fall.

Improbably, the governor’s race — already spooked by the specter of former president Donald Trump — is swirling around issues of literary merit, educational standards and Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the life of a Civil War-era Black woman who kills her own baby rather than see the child enslaved on a Southern plantation.

In “Beloved,” the murdered baby’s spirit lingers among the living, an insistent, unsettling manifestation of the traumas of slavery. Morrison once explained that she was wary of approaching that difficult subject. “It was a caution based on my early years as a student,” she said, “during which time I was keenly aware of erasures and absences and silences in the written history available to me — silences that I took for censure.” Those forces of erasure and censure still haunt us.

In the days leading up to the neck-and-neck Tuesday election, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin has staked his campaign on protecting students from discomfiting books. At a gubernatorial debate on Sept. 28, Youngkin castigated his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, for vetoing a bill that would have required K-12 teachers to notify parents of classroom materials with “sexually explicit content.” Under that legislation, the parents of more than a million Virginia students would have been empowered to demand alternative assignments for any text that pricked their sensibilities.

Fight over teaching ‘Beloved’ book in schools becomes hot topic in Virginia governor’s race

Youngkin was careful not to mention that the legislation McAuliffe vetoed — twice — was nicknamed the “Beloved bill.” But Virginians have been railing against “Beloved” for years. The trouble started in Fairfax County in 2013 when Laura Murphy complained that her son, a high school senior taking Advanced Placement English, had nightmares after reading Morrison’s novel.

In the grand tradition of past moral panics stretching back through rock music, comic books and girls wearing pants, Murphy got the Virginia General Assembly to write legislation enshrining her vision of a parent-sanitized curriculum for each student. The debate was rife with pearl clutching about naughty words and shocking descriptions. David Albo (R-Fairfax) told The Washington Post that a passage in one of Morrison’s books was worse than anything he had seen while living in his college fraternity. “There’s not very much stuff that offends me,” he said, “and even I was aghast at how bad it was.”

Fortunately, McAuliffe vetoed the “Beloved bill” in 2016 and again when it crawled out of the ground in 2017. During the gubernatorial debate last month, he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Republicans have been quick to take McAuliffe’s statement out of context, which stands to reason because taking sentences out of context is the essence of their cynical political battle against teachers’ expertise and professional curriculum development.

This week Murphy is back doing her best Anthony Comstock imitation in a political ad sponsored by Youngkin. Sitting in a living room, staring into the camera, she says, “When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” A close-up of her wringing hands dares us to imagine just how explicit that material must have been. Bright flames in the fireplace behind her remind us where that filth deserves to go. “I met with lawmakers,” Murphy says. “They couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment.”

The perfect distillation of 2021 politics is a banned-book controversy from 2013

Who wouldn’t turn bright red with embarrassment for an adult scurrying around the state capitol showing legislators what she thinks are the dirty parts of a canonical novel by a Nobel Prize winner? It’s no coincidence that Murphy doesn’t mention in her ad that she’s talking about “Beloved.” Her profoundly destructive argument is the same one used this fall by other Virginia parents objecting to celebrated young adult novels by Jonathan Evison and Maia Kobabe. Such efforts always rest on stripping away artistic and moral context, reducing a book to a few isolated passages and then encouraging listeners to make a visceral, uninformed judgment.

To see how dubious that method is consider a play about a 13-year-old girl who commits suicide after a one-night stand: Who would teach that — “Romeo & Juliet” — to freshmen? If the eye-gouging scene in “King Lear” doesn’t give you nightmares, you’re not paying attention. And what about Ezekiel 16:17 or 2 Kings 6:28-29? Try reading those Bible passages to Virginia legislators and watch their faces.

The fact is, no great work of art can endure being drawn and quartered for a polemical purity ritual. And that tactic feels particularly crude when it comes to “Beloved,” a novel my wife and I have both taught to high school juniors. In our respective classes — in Missouri and Massachusetts — the students were never thrown into the text without guidance, appropriate warnings and relevant historical background. These thoughtful teens knew that what’s uncomfortable to read in Morrison’s classic wasn’t there for White folks to highlight in yellow and lob around with shrieks of horror.

Trailblazing author Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel prize for literature, died Aug. 5, 2019. Her legacy goes beyond awards. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Morrison worked hard to pierce more than a century of Southern nostalgia as she researched the true story of Margaret Garner, the escaped enslaved person who killed her daughter to keep her from being dragged back to slavery. Morrison discovered the grotesque tools of torture, and the story she told exposed as never before the sexual violence that sustained America’s “peculiar institution.”

Which is to say, of course “Beloved” contains obscene passages; the obscenity is the point. And young men and women old enough to drive their cars past statues honoring Confederate generals are old enough to get that.

Alas, it’s likely that Murphy, Youngkin and their fellow Republicans don’t realize that they’re echoing 19th-century White readers who demanded that stories about the abuses of slavery defer to their delicate tastes. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.

Great American novels don’t need to come with warning labels, and high schools shouldn’t be balkanized into a jumble of students each reading the least offensive books their parents are willing to approve. We’re freer than that and smarter than that — or should be.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

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