Opinion: Controversy over ‘Beloved’ is so much bigger than one book

The Virginia gubernatorial race between Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Younkin’s reached a new low when the GOP candidate released an ad featuring a conservative activist, Laura Murphy, who campaigned against the teaching of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” on the grounds the story’s grueling depiction of racial violence gave her son — then a high school senior — nightmares.

McAuliffe denounced the move, offering copies of the book at a rally on Tuesday.

“Beloved,” published in 1987, is a brilliant novel about the horrors of racial slavery and the morally compromised choices that brutal system elicited. The protagonist, Sethe, is enslaved and chooses to kill her child rather than have her subjected to rape and further violence inherent to that system.

In the story, Sethe’s choice is refracted through an examination of slavery’s impact on Black communities and the nation as a whole, prompting readers to explore in the process their preconceived ideas about freedom, democracy, and identity — and the role of memory in the shaping of American society.

Morrison’s canon of fiction, which includes novels “Jazz,” “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye,” transformed American literature and earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first for a Black woman. Her fiction and her literary criticism plumbed the depths of how American literature powered the nation’s racial imagination and rewrote historical narratives about slavery by centering the traumas and joys of Black women.

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Morrison understood that ghosts of racial slavery continue to haunt the American present, much like the apparition of Sethe’s lost child threatens to consume her in “Beloved.” She created a body of literature that ensures future generations have access to that most crucial understanding.

It isn’t surprising a reader might have nightmares after completing a book with the power “Beloved” possesses — it is a testimony to what makes this novel vital, not dangerous, to high school and college students.

This controversy over “Beloved” is bigger than one book, even one of such literary importance; it is a chapter in the larger national debate over the teaching of American history in public schools. The GOP efforts to suppress our nation’s longstanding history of racial injustice has been, in dozens of states including Texas (where one lawmaker is investigating 850 books on race and gender that could cause students “discomfort”), successfully weaponized as an assault on so-called “critical race theory.”
The view of history articulated in anti-CRT rhetoric — which has spread like wildfire in the conservative media ecosystem — echoes the “Lost Cause” mythology that reimagined the White supremacist violence after the Civil War as a courageous movement to preserve Southern honor and tradition. These approaches to history, while the products of different eras, share a willful disregard for — and desire among some to obscure or deny — the more harrowing realities of America’s racial past, and a focus on the classroom as a battleground. The immoral ‘Lost Cause’ rendering of America’s past came to be, as the 20th century progressed, embedded in public school education, in colleges and universities, and in the way in which politicians and presidents interpreted race relations.
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The Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s went a long way toward shattering the ‘Lost Cause.’ Through protests, demonstrations, and movements for Black citizenship and through new books, histories, movie, and manifestos, a suppressed history of both racial oppression and anti-racism emerged that reintroduced many Americans to their own buried past.

Morrison’s literary imagination worked to produce what she called a “critical geography” of the most terrifying parts of American history — in order to heal these wounds that continued to fester in the nation’s soul. In her exploration of Black life in a world scarred by slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racist violence she illuminated the depth and breadth of this history’s impact on White lives as well as Black ones.

Efforts to erase work like Morrison’s are part of the Republican Party’s attempts to cancel the teaching of American history — as have been the extended campaigns to ban public school teachers from utilizing Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project.

There is historical precedent for such backsliding — not just in the red-baiting of the Cold War, but in the racial terror that followed the progress made during Reconstruction. It made the proliferation of Lost Cause ideology possible, motivating attempts to further rewrite history with the erection of Confederate monuments, memorials and flags, and movies such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” that popularized White nostalgia for the lost luxuries of antebellum America. These social and cultural efforts further bolstered the racial violence against Black Americans that spread like wildfire during much of the 20th century. Telling a White-washed story of our country is often a prelude to violence.

Banning Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” brings us no closer to national unity or political consensus around issues of race and democracy than do voter suppression laws or any other unfortunate public policies that amplify poverty and division — but masquerade in GOP talking points as something else.

Morrison’s work calls upon all Americans, but especially our young people, to interrogate the past to create a better democratic future. Censoring the American past does not make White students less vulnerable to feelings of despair about the challenges of racial inequity, discrimination and violence we face as a nation. It is only through an examination of the bitter and sweet legacies of our national history can we begin to make sense of the opportunities of the present.

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