The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was disturbed reading ‘Beloved’ at my Virginia high school — and rightly so

The ad posted by Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin on Oct. 25, failed to mention that the child was a high school senior taking an AP course. (Video: Glenn Youngkin | YouTube)

Having read it, I can confirm that “Beloved” is an intense, at times frightening book.

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has sex, violence, mention of bestiality. It centers on the story of a mother who kills her own child, desperate to ensure the infant won’t have to experience the horrors of slavery as she did. It’s visceral, and haunting, and deeply sad.

But then again, imagine how enslaved people must have felt to live it.

This exercise in empathy is, presumably, what is meant to be taught in an Advanced Placement English Literature course for 17- and 18-year-olds — which is where it was situated in the Virginia curriculum when Laura Murphy, the Fairfax County mother prominently featured in a viral campaign ad for Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, began to complain about it.

In the ad, Murphy describes being horrified by the “explicit material” after looking at her child’s reading assignment. And indeed, in 2013, her son — who was by then a 19-year-old college freshman — told The Post that the book was “gross” and hard for him to handle. “I gave up on it,” he said.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

His mother tried to have the novel banned from county schools. Having escaped the hardship of thinking about slavery, the younger Murphy went on to clerk in the Office of the White House Counsel during the Trump administration and is now a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

I was also asked to read “Beloved” in a high school English class, also in Virginia — Richmond, to be precise. It was a hard read. You felt bad. It was also an illuminating corrective, studied against the Virginia backdrop of Robert E. Lee worship, Stonewall Jackson fetishization, and the plantations where enslaved people, we heard in our history classes, worked mostly happily for noble, caring masters.

The novel taught me the power of literature, how words could transmit deep emotion. It did keep me up at night, because I was grappling with the pain of another person, wondering how someone could get to such a place, how people could do these things to one another. The gory details of the book fled my mind in the ensuing years. But the feeling — I never forgot it.

In the lead-up to election night, Youngkin, as has been amply reported, has turned the Virginia governor’s race into a referendum on the teaching of critical race theory — a subject that is not, in fact, part of Virginia’s Standards of Learning, despite Fox News’s shrill claims — and on parents’ rights, in a test case for the 2022 midterms.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, his ads hit his opponent, Terry McAuliffe, for denying parents the ability to approve school curriculums. And Youngkin has said that if elected, he would ban critical race theory “on Day 1” — a phantom ban, all things considered.

But this election has really been a referendum on empathy and responsibility. A vote on Americans’ duty to engage and bear witness to their country’s past, or on the “parental right” to continue to turn a blind eye and make sure that children do, too.

I have written before on why conservatives really fear critical race theory. They fear it because examining our racial history, engaging in empathy for the enslaved and their descendants, might occasion a bit of guilt, a bit of knowledge that our national mythology (and its embedded racial hierarchy) is false, and a bit of responsibility to address racial inequality. It might occasion a bit of change, in short — and we can’t have that.

In Virginia, all of this hides under a dad-like candidate in a fleecy vest, and in the beseeching eyes of a suburban mom protecting her little boy from books that made lawmakers turn “bright red with embarrassment.” But it is obvious from the segregationist history of “parents’ rights” discourse — and in the particular parts of curriculums most frequently opposed — what the real agenda is.

Regardless of the result in Virginia, Americans across the country can expect to vote on this referendum — empathy vs. ignorance, facing the past or refusing to engage — within the next year.

Subtext, foreshadowing: I learned those from “Beloved,” too.