The gubernatorial race in Virginia between Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin reached a new low when a GOP nominee posted an ad with Conservative activist Laura Murphy, who was fighting to learn the Pulitzer Prize-winning Morrison novel “Beloved.” the reasons that an exhaustive account of the racial violence of her son – then a high school senior – caused nightmares.
“Beloved,” published in 1987, is a brilliant novel about the horrors of racial slavery and the morally compromised decisions caused by the brutal system. The protagonist Sethe is enslaved and decides to kill her child instead of being subjected to rape and further violence, which is inextricably linked to this system.
Morrison’s canon of fiction, which includes the novels “Jazz,” “Song of Solomon,” and “The Bluest Eye,” transformed American literature and earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first for a black woman. Her fiction and her literary critique revealed the depth of how American literature fueled the nation’s racial imagination and rewrote historical narratives of slavery by focusing on the traumas and joys of black women.
Morrison understood that the spirits of racial slavery continue to haunt the American present, much like the portrayal of Sethe’s lost child threatens to devour her in the movie “Beloved.” She has created a collection of literature that provides future generations with access to this most important understanding.
Not surprisingly, the reader may have nightmares after completing the book with the power that “Beloved” has – it’s a testament to why this novel is vital and not dangerous to high school and college students.
The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s went a long way toward breaking up ‘Lost Things’. Through protests, demonstrations, and movements for black citizenship, and with new books, histories, films, and manifestos, a repressed history of both racial oppression and anti-racism emerged, reintroducing many Americans into their own buried past.
Morrison’s literary imagination worked to create what she called the “critical geography” of the most horrific parts of American history — to heal those wounds that continued to rot in the soul of the nation. In her exploration of black life in a world caused by slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racist violence, she highlighted the depth and breadth of the impact of this history on the lives of whites and blacks.
Efforts to wipe out work like Morrison’s are part of the Republican Party’s attempts to repeal the teaching of American history – such as the expanded campaigns to ban public school teachers from using the 1619 Nicholas Hannah-Jones project.
There is a historical precedent for such a setback – not just in the wake of the Cold War, but in the racial terror that followed the progress made during reconstruction. It allowed the spread of the ideology of lost cause, which encouraged attempts to further rewrite history by erecting Confederate monuments, memorials and flags, and films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” that popularized white nostalgia for the lost luxury of prewar America. These social and cultural efforts further intensified the racial violence against black Americans, which spread like wildfire for much of the 20th century. Telling a white story about our country is often an introduction to violence.
Tony Morrison’s ban on “Beloved” doesn’t bring us closer to national unity or political consensus on issues of race and democracy like voter repression laws or any other unfortunate public policy that increases poverty and division – but in GOP rumors it disguises itself as something else.
Morrison’s work calls on all Americans, and especially our young people, to question the past in order to create a better democratic future. Censorship of America’s past does not make white students less vulnerable to feelings of despair at the challenges of racial inequality, discrimination, and violence we face as a nation. Only by reviewing the bitter and sweet legacy of our national history can we begin to make sense of the opportunities of the present.