Today’s Washington Post brought the headline “Fairfax County parent wants ‘Beloved’ banned from Fairfax County school system” above a photograph of a white woman with her arms crossed inside what appears to be a very tony home.
It seems last year Laura Murphy’s son had nightmares after reading Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, an important yet difficult story about race, rape and slavery. Now she wants the entire school system to ban the book. The article goes on to quote her son, Blake, presumably also white and affluent, on reading Beloved during his senior year at Lake Braddock High School in Virginia:
“It was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”
Quoting straight from the article:
Currently, students can opt out of books assigned in class that they find uncomfortable to read. But the policy should be stricter for books with mature themes, Murphy argues.
Laura Murphy tried and failed to get the book dropped entirely from the AP English curriculum, after bringing the matter to the superintendent, the school board and the taxpayers who subsidize their time. Today she is working to have the entire state of Virginia change reading policies to mirror “family life” (sex ed) policies in which parents are able to receive notice before certain topics come up, and remove their children — some of whom may be legal adults — from the class.
And with that, it’s all here in this real-life story: Race, class, privilege, elitism, sexism, sexuality taboos, rape culture, male dominance, control, the power of omission, science taboos, ignorance, euphemisms, ‘family values,’ religious right policy frameworks, censorship, fear of ‘the other,’ teaching slavery in a former slave state, public education in the suburbs versus public education everywhere else, the promise of an elite Advanced Placement program most frequently realized by those who don’t have the largest issues paying for four years of college.
It is a perverse twist on a scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird that made me uncomfortable, and never left me, where the tattered books from the rich white children are sent off to the poor black children. In that I read a juxtaposition of good intentions and/or a ‘desecration is appropriate for certain people in certain contexts’ mentality on one side, and a longing for better conditions on the other. And no difference in essential humanity between the two, just unquestioned customs and the accident of what body you were born in.
What I’m saying is that as a child in an affluent, primarily white suburban public school system, I read To Kill A Mockingbird and began to think about race and racial privilege in a more critical way. It was life-changing. Continuing to push myself into more of that discomfort is a lifelong process. That lifelong process began by reading a difficult book about race in public school.
Rather than use the space of this post to ridicule Laura Murphy and Blake Murphy and those who believe censorship is a good idea, or that the real experiences of oppression should be sanitized, or that whitewashing history will help everyone to sleep better, I’m going to observe instead the power of the written word and specifically fiction to further realize the promise of a democratic society.
It is in reading the immersive stories of others that we learn empathy for those we are segregated from, those with less than us, those with different experiences than us, those with more resources than us. Emotions are important, yes, but this is what democracy and pluralism are all about. Rather than insist everyone be the same, we all need to know how to work together. Further, by learning about injustice, creating a language for injustice, having a framework to talk about injustice, we can help unravel the secrecy it requires to continue.
Toni Morrison is one of the best novelists alive today. For Beloved she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. This bizarre story in Virginia feels almost like something she would write into one of her novels, so that we might embrace a little more fear and learn a little more compassion.