The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Toni Morrison poses for a portrait at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington on Dec. 3, 2008. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

A few weeks ago, someone shared an image of the top-10 best-selling “politics and government” books on Amazon. It included what you’d expect: books about the Trump administration from journalists, politicians and right-wing writers, books about the pandemic and the economy. But then, at No. 3, there was an unexpected entry. Somehow, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” had earned a spot in the mix.

It was a mystery that remains unsolved, except in a metaphorical sense. The universe was simply doing a bit of foreshadowing.

On Monday, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, released an ad attacking his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, for having muffled a parent’s concerns about their child.

You’ll notice, if you watch the ad, that it’s pretty vague. The woman in the ad, Laura Murphy, simply describes how her son showed her “reading material” that she found unacceptably explicit. She criticizes McAuliffe, the state’s former governor, for having vetoed legislation that would have notified parents about explicit content being used in school curriculums.

“It gave parents a say,” she explains. “The option to choose an alternative for my children.”

It didn’t take long to dig up the incident to which Murphy was referring. In 2013, she objected to the inclusion of “Beloved” in a high school Advanced Placement English class. Her son, Blake Murphy, told The Washington Post at the time that he found the book “disgusting and gross.”

“It was hard for me to handle,” he said. “I gave up on it.”

The context of the assignment seems important here. This was not a student in fifth grade being asked to read something with horrifying content. It was a young man — either 17 or 18 when the book was assigned — being asked as part of an advanced curriculum to consider an award-winning novel. It’s a challenging book, certainly, about the life of an enslaved woman who murders her infant to save her from the same fate. It contains explicit material, unquestionably. But that’s part of the point: presenting a challenging circumstance for readers to grapple with. The Murphys declined.

The ad accurately depicts what came next. Legislation that would allow parents to keep their children from reading material to which they objected, vetoed by McAuliffe. The issue has come up before on the campaign trail this year, with McAuliffe at times misrepresenting what the legislation would have done. But it also seems almost to have been mystically predestined to emerge in a close political race in 2021, given the groundwork that’s been laid for exactly the sort of pitch that Youngkin’s ad is making. Little did McAuliffe know that vetoing that bill was the functional equivalent of Chekhov’s gun.

During the spring, Fox News and other right-wing media were consumed with the overlapping questions of “cancel culture” (which people of a certain age will remember as the “political correctness” debate) and what they called “critical race theory,” an identifier for a specific academic regimen that quickly ballooned into describing most efforts to discuss or consider race in schools. Fox News’s coverage was saturated with stories about “critical race theory” appearing in classrooms and the outrage of parents at its arrival.

Over time, that furor was redirected at school boards more broadly. Angry parents — including some who also happened to be Republican Party officials — denounced school officials for race-centered curriculums and for mask mandates aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, responding to concerns from an advocacy organization for school officials, the Justice Department encouraged local law enforcement to take seriously violent threats against those officials. This was unfairly and inaccurately recast as the Biden administration calling parents terrorists — and interest in the subject surged. In recent weeks, Fox News’s discussion of school boards has focused heavily on Virginia, where polling suggests the issue of education has emerged as a central consideration of voters.

The Youngkin ad alludes to a comment made by McAuliffe during a gubernatorial debate when the subject of education came up.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” the Democrat said, opening the door for his opponent to more readily cast him as siding with bureaucrats over parents. Allowing Youngkin, in essence, to better leverage the national conversation about parents and schools.

But that quote was barely needed. In a year in which the political right has successfully stoked anger at educators, often in the context of learning about issues of race, a years-old fight over a book about slavery fits neatly into the conversation.

If you step back and consider the broader context, though, the lesson is somewhat different. “Beloved” has long been a target of concern from parents, making the American Library Association’s list of most-challenged books on multiple occasions (including in 2012). It is nonetheless included in educational curriculums because of the historical subject matter and the power of the prose. It viscerally conveys the horrors of slavery in a way that is hard to replicate.

This is an important point, too. Had the Virginia law survived, what alternative material could be provided to a student whose mother didn’t want him to read the book? How could he then participate in a class discussion? The book is not necessarily something that a parent would recommend their child read, but teachers have a different motivation than do parents.

At its heart, much of the recent debate over how race is taught centers on concern about how White Americans are cast. The term “critical race theory” is often presented as saying that all White people are racist, which is not what the theory actually argues. Complaints from parents often are about the fear that children will be told that they are to blame for toxic elements of American history. There’s this emergent, palpable concern about how young Americans understand the country’s history, a fear that is obviously intertwined with concerns on the right (where fear of anti-White discrimination is much higher) that younger Americans are more liberal than their elders. Given all of that, it’s almost surprising that the Youngkin ad didn’t specify the subject matter of the book that Blake Murphy struggled with. But it is fitting for 2021 that the book at the heart of the 2013 effort had slavery and race as a central theme.

Given that we’re elevating mystical elements in this article — again befitting the nature of “Beloved” — it’s worth pointing out one other weird overlap with the current political discussion. Blake Murphy chose not to read “Beloved” when assigned it in high school. In his 2020 New York Times wedding profile, we learned that he is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee. I, too, was assigned “Beloved” in high school and read it. I am now a correspondent for The Post.

Make of that what you will.