Efforts to Ban Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” Are at Center of Virginia Governor Race

Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin caused public uproar this week when he released a political ad featuring a white mother who advocated banning Toni Morrison’s novel BelovedFrom schools. The woman, Laura Murphy, describes the book as “some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” In 2013, Murphy fought to have the “Beloved bill” passed, which was eventually vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is running again for governor against Youngkin in the current race. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of a family of former enslaved people set after the American Civil War. Dana Williams, professor of African American literature at Howard University, says the fight over “parents’ rights” has become a racist dog whistle. “Books like Beloved really do force us to have real conversations about history,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we mentioned, there’s been a firestorm in the Virginia race over the teaching of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved in schools. It stems from an ad by the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin that features a mother who once campaigned to have the book banned from her high school senior son’s curriculum. Here’s a clip from that ad.

LAURA MURPHY: As a parent, it’s tough to catch everything. My heart was broken when I saw my son’s reading assignment. It was the most explicit material I could imagine. I met with lawmakers. They couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red from embarrassment.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Dana Williams, dean of the Graduate School and professor of African American literature at Howard University. She’s also president of the Toni Morrison Society.

We are glad you are here Democracy Now!Dean Williams. This is an incredible teaching moment, having Toni Morrison, the late great Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, at the heart of the Virginia race. Can you talk about its significance?

DANA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I would agree with you completely that it’s an amazing moment. I mean, I don’t think that there any instances where there isn’t a Morrison novel that applies to a political situation, but I don’t know that this is what she imagined.

She did have a lot to share about censorship and banning of books. PEN America foundation will actually publish a book called This Book Can Be BurnedShe also spoke about censorship in the context of having open discussions. And unfortunately, part of what we have to face and admit is that all segments of our populations just aren’t interested in the intellectualism that literature does, and there’s actually a significant anti-intellectual population.

This book, ironically, though, is an incredible metaphor for all of the things that we are trying to think about — choice, parental choice, in particular, and then it also has some resonances, ironically, too, with the abortion issue, since the book itself turns on Sethe, the main character’s decision to practice infanticide rather than have her child return to slavery. So, there’s so many different cultural elements that are present in this book that speak tremendously to the moment that we find ourselves in.

AMY GOODMAN: I would like to visit Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture from December 1993, when she became first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

TONI MORRISON: Who doesn’t know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? How many people are outraged that a self-ravaged tongue is being thought of?

Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it’s generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Toni Morrison in 1993. Now you have this ad. Laura Murphy isn’t just a Virginia mom. As we said earlier, in the ad, as she talked about her son’s embarrassment reading the book — they don’t actually refer to BelovedShe is not, however, well-known for her efforts to ban it in schools and eventually trying to get a bill through, which McAuliffe, I believe, vetoed twice. Could you please talk more about the importance of Beloved This battle in schools, and what Toni Morrison would have to say today?

DANA WILLIAMS: Well, I think that explicit language is a major part of the conversation. The conversation we have seen over the past few days has shown us that explicit language is a relative abstraction of the reality that the people were forced to live with. So, I can agree with those who have called the ad a dog whistle, a racist pet whistle, but not as a matter fact. Particularly the element that suggests the lawmakers were red in the face. This, by itself, does not mean that there are any Black lawmakers who were involved in that conversation.

But it also speaks to the real tension that’s happening in our public school system, in a general sense, from Texas to other places all over the country, where critical race studies or critical race theory, at least the popular culture interpretations of them, is under fire. How can we approach a book that helps us think about slavery in a way which humanizes those who were enslaved and then create scenarios that make it very clear, in a way only fiction can? History can’t represent the emotional aspect of it. It can’t represent the sheer force of brutality around it. What does it mean to try to ban these books or to make explicit warnings?

And Beloved, as this novel that really is about a haunting, the haunting of a child who says, “No, you don’t get to forget the past completely, that you must confront it” — and these are characters who overwhelmingly are trying to move away from that path of enslavement, because they have freed themselves. They have tried to liberate themselves in that kinda moment. But Beloved It is still saying that confrontation must take place; otherwise, the haunting goes on. And it’s what’s happening in Virginia. You really couldn’t pen a better story to suggest that if you don’t face and confront the past, whether it’s in its statuary, whether it’s in its architecture, whether it’s in the stories that we tell — if you don’t confront it, it continues to haunt us.

AMY GOODMAN: When she talks about her son, she doesn’t say he was an AP high school senior. And it’s now years later. He’s a Republican activist lawyer. Charles Blow was quoted in an interview. article He wrote, an oped piece in The New York Times, saying, “Youngkin wants to resurface this coded debate because it helps Republicans convert schools into battlegrounds, where they can use the protection of children and parental rights as shields behind which to wage a culture war over race, gender and states’ rights disguised as a defense of the innocent.” If you could respond to this, Dean Williams?

DANA WILLIAMS: I would also agree with that. It just so happens that Charles and myself are both graduates of Grambling State University. We were probably trained by the same people. So, we are well aware and very capable of understanding when there is coded language to say that the fight over culture, the fight over states’ rights, is something that we have to confront from the Civil War. This is the war we continue to wage. Reconstruction needed some adjustments. It seemed that in particular the Southern states would have to face the realities of federal versus state issues. But we know that the conversation that says that the Civil War was fought around states’ rights is not as authentic as one that really does grapple with the Civil War as being about enslavement and about the humanity of people, and who gets to choose.

We see so much in the Margaret Garner story which inspires. BelovedThe story of a slaveholder’s inability to deal with the legalese is titled “The Inability to Deal with Legalese”. I mean, they didn’t know whether to charge her with murder, because if they charged her with murder, it would mean that that child was to be considered a full human. They decide not to pursue the murder charge and instead concentrate on the destruction and sale of property. So I think books like Beloved These forces us to have meaningful conversations about history and to think about culture wars and what it meant to lose a culture battle in the cradle Confederacy. It’s not lost on any of us that this is an issue that is raising its head in Virginia, in particular —

AMY GOODMAN: Julia, finally, as we’ve just lost Dean Williams, your final comments on how this is playing out in the last few days of this race in Virginia?

JULIA MANCHESTER: Well, it’s interesting. You know, we saw that ad that Youngkin put out, I believe it was Monday or — I think it was Monday. And, Beloved wasn’t mentioned in the ad and the book wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it didn’t take long for opposition researchers or journalists to google Laura Murphy and find a 2013 Washington Post Article about her efforts to ban Beloved. Now, Laura Murphy said in that article she didn’t necessarily want to ban it altogether forever from the curriculum. She said that, you know, she wanted parents to at least have a say in what books were assigned, or have a say in opting what — you know, whether their children could opt out in reading a book. However, at the same time —

AMY GOODMAN: Julia, we have five more seconds

JULIA MANCHESTER: Yes, yes. You’ve really seen McAuliffe’s campaign very much seize upon this, especially at a time when you see a lot of big galvanization of Black voters in Virginia. It’ll be interesting to see how this impacts it.

AMY GOODMAN: Julia Manchester, we are so grateful that you joined us. The Hill. Thank you, Dean Dana Williams from Howard University.

This concludes our show. We say farewell to our two special team members, Julia Thomas (and Adriano Contreras). Julia and Adriano joined our team before the pandemic spread across the globe. They showed remarkable talent and resilience during this difficult time. We are grateful to you both for your dedication, and wish you the very best as your careers progress. I’m Amy Goodman. Keep safe.