Reality can be hard to swallow. Having to confront the horrors of the present and the past, day in and day out, can make us wish we could pretend they don’t exist. Some can’t afford that luxury, and others can pretend their way into believing they never did exist in the first place.
In 2013, Laura Murphy, a resident of the state of Virginia in the United States, complained to the county school board about her son, Blake Murphy, being assigned Beloved by Toni Morrison in his senior year AP English class. She argued that the book gave her son nightmares because it was too graphic in its depiction of slavery. Her complaint evolved into the “Beloved Bill” which sought to effectively give parents the authority to dismiss a book if they deemed it to be sexually explicit, which was eventually vetoed by then Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Earlier this year, McAuliffe ran again as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia against the Republican candidate, Glenn Younkin, who ended up defeating McAuliffe on election day. During his campaign, Younkin released an ad in which Laura Murphy revived the argument for censoring what should be read in high schools, recalling her experience with her son.
“When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you could imagine,” she said in the ad, while blaming McAuliffe for shutting parents out.
Beloved is indeed an upsetting book. It should be. The novel vividly portrays the experience and the aftermath of slavery for both the abused and the abusers, and there are scenes that will make you uncomfortable and will undoubtedly be seared onto your memory. The story jumps between two timelines and revolves around Sethe, who used to be enslaved at a plantation by the name of Sweet Home, but now lives in freedom with her daughter Denver. Both are haunted by the ghost of Beloved, Sethe’s first daughter, who suffered a tragic death.
Toni Morrison became the first Black female editor in fiction at Random House in 1960 and was a big champion of African American literature. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. Her work is revered not only for her beautiful prose but for her complex manner of tackling difficult subjects.
“To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way,” she writes in the foreword to this book.
Beloved, although specific in its time and setting, speaks to the violence of people subjugating people anywhere in the world, which brings to mind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Reduced Inequalities. We still have a long way to go. We need challenging books that make us look closer and judge our history for what it really was, so that we may better understand the problems of today.
Buy Beloved at your favourite independent bookstore, or get it from your local library.