Banning "Beloved" Won't Help Protect Kids, But it Will Help Sanitize RacismRoundup
tags: slavery, African American history, literature, teaching history, Toni Morrison, Banned Books
Farah Jasmine Griffin, the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship, is a professor of African American and African diaspora studies and English literature at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature.
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.
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