Toni Morrison’s body of work is no stranger to winding up on banned and challenged book lists. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, appears frequently on ALA’s annual list of most challenged titles, most recently landing at number nine in 2020. Recently, though, a different Morrison novel has appeared in the news: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved became a hot topic in Virginia’s race for governor earlier this month.
A campaign ad for Republican governor-elect Glenn Youngkin features Laura Murphy, a mother from Fairfax County, discussing an experience from nearly a decade ago in which her son was assigned “explicit” reading material in school. In complaints lodged outside the commercial, Murphy asserts that said material gave her son nightmares. Although not named in the ad, the book in question was Beloved, assigned to the student in his senior year Advanced Placement English course. Murphy expresses support for a previously proposed bill that aimed to alert parents when explicit materials would be assigned in the classroom. The bill was ultimately vetoed by Youngkin’s challenger, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe. Murphy also sought to have the novel removed from the school’s curriculum.
Beloved tackles the horrors of slavery in the pre-Civil War South and tells the story of Sethe, an escape slave who attempts to kill her children when their master arrives to capture them and return them to slavery. Known for its untraditional structure and innovative uses of concepts like memory and spirituality, it has been widely praised by critics for its portrayal of complex, powerful Black characters and its exploration of feminist ideals. Its ingenuity has helped it remain popular not only with general readers, but also with high school and college English curricula.
The Virginia controversy over Beloved reached national headlines with coverage from the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS News, and more. Sales of the book saw a bump as a result. In an October 28 opinion piece for the Washington Post, Farah Jasmine Griffin acknowledges that Beloved depicts painful imagery of slavery and abuse and their impact on the characters; however, the reality is that slavery was in and of itself painful. Sexual content in the novel can be difficult to read about but “is not overly explicit”, despite Murphy and Youngkin’s assertions. “If [Morrison’s] novel is obscene, that is because the institution of slavery was obscene,” Griffin concludes.
Ultimately, the challenge that served as the inspiration for this ad is not unlike the others that have circulated recently. It follows similar logic to those that seek to ban critical race theory or works that depict the brutality of past violence and oppression on American soil. Although Murphy’s initial complaints were lodged between 2012 and 2013, their resurrection in this year’s ad illustrates how well they fit in with other recent challenges.
Gretchen Kaser Corsillo (she/her) is the Director of Rutherford (NJ) Public Library and has worked in public libraries in a variety of capacities since 2003. In 2013, she received her Master’s of Library & Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. She also holds a B.A. in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Political Science from Ramapo College. Prior to working as a professional librarian, Gretchen worked in the marketing and legal fields; the latter, combined with her interest in writing, has made her a strong advocate for intellectual freedom.