RICHMOND — Sen. Richard H. Black doesn’t think of himself as squeamish. When he was a young Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, his aircraft took ground fire four times, he was wounded in combat, and he received the Purple Heart.
But the Northern Virginia Republican said he was so stunned by the “moral sewage” in Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” that he did something he professes to never have done in nearly two decades in office.
He abandoned all diplomacy and told a constituent exactly what he thought.
Black called the book “profoundly filthy” and “smut” and derided the teaching of “such vile things,” even though “Beloved” is routinely part of the curriculum in Advanced Placement English courses.
The screed, first reported by Gawker, is part of an extraordinary email exchange between Black and Jessica Berg, a teacher from Loudoun County.
Berg wrote to Black to protest his vote for a bill that would have required teachers to give parents advance notice if they planned to assign material with sexually explicit content in class. Parents would then have had the right to “opt out” their children from reading the offending books in favor of an alternative.
Berg, who lives and teaches in Black’s Loudoun district, said she was particularly offended that lawmakers would judge a seminal work of fiction about a former slave after the Civil War based on excerpts and without reading the entire novel.
She offered to go to Black’s office and “personally teach you the novel and many others.”
“It’s ridiculous that you are trying to control education when you have no idea what it entails,” she wrote. “You do not want free thinkers. You want people to adhere to your particular version of morality which does not encompass everyone.”
She also suggested that lawmakers defer to professional educators when it comes to what is taught in the classroom.
“Being in classrooms with these students that you think are going to be poisoned by these texts shows that you do not really know the demographic you are trying to ‘protect,’” she wrote. “You are not giving them the credit that is due. Students are often more mature than we think, and as teachers we guide them through these novels in a mature manner in an academic setting so that we can discuss them in a fitting manner because that is our job, not yours.”
“I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students. Slavery was a terrible stain on this nation but to teach it does not mean you have to expose children to smut. The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents.”
One of the most conservative members of Virginia’s General Assembly, Black has a long history of controversial behavior.
In 2002, during debate on a bill to lift Virginia’s ban on prosecuting spousal rape, Black, then a member of the House of Delegates, said: “I do not know how on Earth you could validly get a conviction of a husband-wife rape where they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie, and so forth, there is no injury, there’s no separation or anything.”
The next year, he made headlines when he sent tiny pink plastic models of a fetus to fellow legislators ahead of a vote on an abortion bill.
Yet Black, a former prosecutor, easily won reelection last year, and he has advocated for new state guidelines that require timely testing of rape kits.
In a phone interview Wednesday, he defended his view of “Beloved.”
“If you scar the minds of children when they’re young, you’re going to have problems later in life,” he said. “It’s no wonder we’ve got the problems we do with kids today, when we’re exposing them to this type of thing in the public schools.”
Berg said she was taken aback that Black would question her professionalism as a teacher and suggest teachers don’t care how books affect students.
“That’s all we care about, that’s what we do every day,” she said.
Although about half of school districts follow the parental notification called for in the GOP-backed measure, the bill would have enshrined the practice in state law.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vetoed the bill Monday, saying it was unnecessary because the state Board of Education is considering changing policy to address parents’ concerns.
The bill’s sponsor promised to introduce the same legislation next year if the agency doesn’t follow through.