Meaning: The 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, campaigning against the teaching of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” the reason why history’s grueling depiction of racial violence gave her son – then a high school senior – nightmares.

McAuliffe condemned the move and offered copies of the book at a meeting Tuesday.

“Beloved,” published in 1987, is a brilliant novel about the horrors of racial slavery and the morally compromised choices that the brutal system evoked. The main character, Sethe, is enslaved and chooses to kill her child instead of having her subjected to rape and further violence associated with this system.

In the story, Sethe’s choices are broken through a study of the impact of slavery on black societies and the nation as a whole, prompting readers in the process to explore their preconceived notions of freedom, democracy and identity – and the role of memory in shaping American society.

Morrison’s fictional canon, which includes the novels “Jazz,” “Song of Solomon,” and “The Bluest Eye,” transformed American literature and awarded her the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first for a black woman. Her fiction and her literary critique left the depths of how American literature drove the nation’s racial imagination and rewrote historical narratives of slavery by centering the traumas and joys of black women.

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Morrison understood that the ghosts of racial slavery continue to haunt the American present, just as the appearance of Seth’s lost child threatens to devour her in “Beloved.” She created a wealth of literature that ensures that future generations have access to the most crucial understanding.

It is not surprising that a reader may have nightmares after completing a book with the power “Beloved” possesses – it is a testament to what makes this novel vital, not dangerous, for high school students and college students.

This controversy about “beloved” is greater than one book, even one of such literary significance; it is a chapter in the larger national debate about the teaching of American history in public schools. The GOP’s efforts to suppress our nation’s long history of racial injustice have successfully become a weapon of attack in dozens of states, including Texas (where a legislature examines 850 books on race and gender that can cause “discomfort” for students). so-called “critical race theory”.
The view of history formulated in anti-CRT rhetoric – which has spread like wildfire in the conservative media ecosystem – repeats the “Lost Cause” mythology, which rethought the violence of white supremacy after the Civil War as a courageous movement to preserve the honor and tradition of the southern states. These approaches to history, while the products of different eras, share a conscious ignorance of – and desire among some to obscure or deny – the more shocking realities of America’s racial past and a focus on the classroom as a battleground. The immoral ‘Lost Cause’ rendering of America’s past was, as the 20th century progressed, embedded in elementary school education, in colleges and universities, and in the way politicians and presidents interpreted race relations.
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The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s went a long way towards crushing ‘the lost cause’. Through protests, demonstrations and movements for black citizenship and through new books, stories, films and manifestos, a repressed history emerged with both racial oppression and anti-racism 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 frightening parts of American history – to heal those wounds that continued to cling to the nation’s soul. In her exploration of the life of blacks in a world scarred by slavery, Jim Crow separation, and racist violence, she highlighted the depth and breadth of this story’s impact on the lives of whites and blacks alike.

Efforts to erase work like Morrisons ‘are part of the Republican Party’s attempt to cancel teaching of American history – as are the expanded campaigns to ban public school teachers from using Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 project.

There is a historical precedent for such a setback – not only in the red locks of the Cold War, but in the racial terror that followed the progress made during the reconstruction. This made possible the spread of the Lost Cause ideology, which motivated attempts to further rewrite history with the construction of Confederate monuments, memorials and flags and films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” that popularized white nostalgia for lost luxury from antebellum America. These social and cultural efforts further strengthened racial violence against black Americans, which spread like wildfire for most of the 20th century. Telling a whitewashed story about our country is often a prelude to violence.

Banning Toni Morrison’s “beloved” brings us no closer to national unity or political consensus on issues of race and democracy than it does to voter oppression laws or any other unfortunate public policy that exacerbates poverty and division – but masks the GOP’s talk as something else.

Morrison’s work encourages all Americans, but especially our young people, to question the past in order to create a better democratic future. Censoring the American past does not make white students less vulnerable to feelings of despair over the challenges of racial inequality, discrimination, and violence we face as a nation. It is only through an examination of the bitter and sweet legacy of our national history that we can begin to understand the possibilities of today.


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