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

Toni Morrison receives the Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2012. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

RICHMOND — A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1987 has suddenly become the hottest topic in the Virginia governor’s race, as Republican Glenn Youngkin charged that Democrat Terry McAuliffe blocked parents from protecting their children from explicit classroom material, while McAuliffe responded by raising the specter of book-banning.

At the heart of the issue: “Beloved,” the novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison about a Civil War-era Black woman who kills her own 2-year-old daughter to spare her from the evils of slavery.

The novel, inspired by a true story, contains graphic depictions of sex, violence and bestiality as it portrays the horrors of slavery but was praised by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani for having “the heightened power and resonance of myth.”

With only a week to go until Election Day, Youngkin released an ad Monday featuring Fairfax County resident Laura Murphy, who waged a battle against “Beloved” in schools beginning in 2013 after her son — a high school senior at the time — said it gave him nightmares while reading it for an advanced placement literature class.

Murphy eventually took her fight to the Republican-led General Assembly, which in 2016 passed a bill with bipartisan support to give parents the right to opt their children out of sexually explicit reading assignments.

At the time, about half of Virginia school districts already followed that practice, but the bill would have enshrined that in state law. The “Beloved bill,” as it was known, would have made Virginia the first state in the nation to give parents that opt-out power. McAuliffe vetoed it as well as a similar bill in 2017.

In Virginia classrooms, should parents block sexually explicit literature for their kids?

McAuliffe on Monday condemned the ad, saying Youngkin was using “our schools and children as political pawns.”

“In the final week of this race, Glenn Youngkin has doubled down on the same divisive culture wars that have fueled his campaign from the very beginning,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “Youngkin’s closing message of book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party — mainly his top endorser and surrogate, Donald Trump.”

Youngkin’s campaign released a statement saying the bills “would simply have notified parents of sexually explicit reading assignments and given them the choice of having their child receive an alternative. McAuliffe continues to confirm every day that he wants to silence parents because he doesn’t believe they should have a say in their child’s education.”

In the 60-second video, Murphy speaks directly into the camera.

“When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk,” she says. “It was some of the most explicit reading material you can imagine.”

McAuliffe’s vetoes show that “he doesn’t think parents should have a say,” she says. “He shut us out.”

Her son, Blake Murphy, is now a lawyer at the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The ad was viewed more than 1 million times and shared on Twitter more than 1,600 times as of late Tuesday morning.

Youngkin has increasingly built his campaign’s momentum on issues of parental grievance, as conservatives nationwide accuse local school boards of pursuing a liberal cultural agenda. The tactic seems to be working; polls show that Youngkin has gained on McAuliffe, and the race is a dead heat.

Youngkin routinely gets his loudest applause at rallies when he promises to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Virginia, referring to a set of academic theories about teaching racial history that are not actually on the state’s public school curriculums.

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He has also tapped into parental outrage in Loudoun County over a case in which a student was accused of committing sexual assault at one high school several months after being accused of a similar incident at another school.

The issue of books started gaining ground earlier this month when Youngkin raised it in the second and final gubernatorial debate, accusing McAuliffe of vetoing the “Beloved” bill in an effort to impose the will of the state on parents. McAuliffe defended it and said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Republicans seized on that quote, using it to appeal to voters in crucial suburban swing districts.

McAuliffe eventually released a TV ad in which he emphasized his respect for parents.

Karina Elwood contributed to this report.