The final days of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign have featured a cameo by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, “Beloved.” Republican Glenn Youngkin is running an ad bashing Democrat Terry McAuliffe for vetoing legislation in 2017, when McAuliffe was governor, that would have given parents the right to opt their children out of reading sexually explicit material in school. The ad features a mother who says her son, as a high school senior, suffered from night terrors after reading the book.
This may be an unexpected turn for Virginia politics, but it’s not so unusual for Morrison’s work to be at the center of censorship battles. Since the publication of her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” in 1970, Morrison’s books have often come under fire. In 1997, Texas prisons considered “Paradise” too dangerous for their libraries because it might incite “strikes or riots.” In its yearly reports, the American Library Association often lists Morrison’s novels among the most frequently challenged or banned books. Last year, a Southern California school board announced the reversal of its decision to remove “The Bluest Eye” from its core reading list for AP English Literature classes.
But this latest iteration of the controversy surrounding “Beloved” occurs in the context of nationwide debates about race and history, and in the closing days of a close political campaign. This suggests that bringing the book back up now, nine years after the mother featured in Youngkin’s ad first complained about it, is less about the comfort of teenage readers and more about parents trying to elide the harsh truths and realities of our nation’s history.
Censorship does not result in education, the pursuit of knowledge or intellectual growth. What Morrison said about Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” might also be said of her own writing. Concerning parental attempts to have Twain’s classic removed from classrooms because of its use of a racially pejorative term, Morrison wrote that such efforts are the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Morrison found the great brilliance of “Huckleberry Finn” to be “the argument it raises” about the role of slavery in our nation’s identity and the way it thwarted our professed commitment to freedom and liberty. Even as she was herself offended by some aspects of the text, she nonetheless defended Twain’s work from accusations of racism. She valued the way he called attention to race and slavery, she appreciated his elevation of an American vernacular, itself built upon the contributions of American blacks to the language, and she critically engaged his novel in her own work, “Beloved.”
As such, she modeled for us a way of teaching, engaging and debating works of art. Confronting the difficult truths of the past in this way has given rise to our most powerful literature and to political movements that have helped the nation move toward a more expansive sense of its democratic principles.
Morrison saw efforts to ban her work as proof of its power, and she devoted much of her life to protecting the rights and safety of writers who risked censorship and worse. She understood that attempts to silence writers — indeed, to silence all artists — are authoritarian in nature. These efforts endeavor to keep citizens ignorant, if comfortable.
Literary history is full of examples of complex, difficult books replete with scenes of sex and violence, often told in controversial, if beautiful, language. The most sophisticated of these works do not sensationalize violence, nor do they insist that readers put themselves in the place of the characters, but instead, they encourage us to bear witness to the suffering of others. For literature to bear witness, it must engage with violence, even as it condemns it. From the Old and New Testaments to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” readers are confronted with powerful narratives that not only tell the stories of oppressed people, but also hold the mirror up to humanity, often showing us parts of ourselves we’d rather not see.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Beloved,” a novel that includes sex, some of it consensual, much of it brutal and abusive. Such abuse constituted the horrific conditions of slavery. Nonetheless, sex in “Beloved” is not overly explicit, as Youngkin’s ad and the earlier campaign against it would have us believe, although it can make for difficult and painful reading. If her novel is “obscene,” that is because the institution of slavery was obscene. The novel is about slavery — including, but not limited to, the sexual abuse that it encouraged and relied upon as a tool of power. Significantly, “Beloved” is also about a mother, Sethe, seeking to protect her child from the horrors of that institution, which includes protecting her from sexual assault. For Sethe, murdering her child is better than having the girl face the terror with which she herself has lived as an enslaved woman.
Ultimately, Morrison’s work asks the question, what kind of people can be capable of such inhumane cruelty? The refusal to confront this question, let alone explore the answers it may yield, sits at the core of attempts to ban Morrison. Her writings and other historical and creative works expose the ugly parts of our history, including its crimes against humanity.
The resurgence of opposition to “Beloved” coincides with the right wing’s assault on critical race theory and, more broadly, on any attempts to discuss structural racism in classrooms. The history of slavery and its aftermath, which inspired “Beloved,” is directly related to examining the forms of systemic racism that inform every aspect of our society. Public schools have emerged as contentious sites in this ongoing battle because they, along with the voting booth, have long been places where ideological battles over the myths and meanings of our nation have been fought. In this instance, those who criticize “Beloved” and want to ban what they call critical race theory claim that any works addressing the country’s history of racial inequality and violence pose a threat to impressionable young minds. At best, this resistance is as uninformed as it is passionate. At worst, it is a distraction mobilized by political campaigns seeking to exploit age-old racial fault lines — a distraction that takes our attention away from the true threat to democracy posed by those who would dismantle voting rights, advance economic inequality and undermine the sustainability of our planet.
Yes, parents — like Sethe in the novel — do want and should have the right to protect their children, but it is just as important for young people to explore difficult ideas in the context of a classroom, under the careful guidance of well-trained teachers dedicated to free expression and critical thinking. Studying literature offers us the opportunity to do just that.
Efforts to ban works like “Beloved” undermine democracy, even if they aren’t intended to. Encouraging students to encounter new and different contexts provides an opportunity for them to understand experiences beyond their own, forces them to confront the evil that human beings can do to each other as well as the decency, mercy and love we are capable of offering one another. Engaging such books also allows them to imagine other times, places and sets of possibilities. At this moment in our nation’s history, we are in desperate need of a generation that has been exposed to and guided through our history, both the difficult past and the extraordinary wisdom and beauty offered to us by our greatest artists. Only then will they be able intellectually, politically and morally to move all of us into a more just and democratic future.
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