Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin caused public uproar this week when he released a political ad featuring a white mother who advocated banning Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” from schools. The woman, Laura Murphy, describes the book as “some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” In 2013, Murphy fought to have the “Beloved bill” passed, which was eventually vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is running again for governor against Youngkin in the current race. Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of a family of former enslaved people set after the American Civil War. Dana Williams, professor of African American literature at Howard University, says the fight over “parents’ rights” has become a racist dog whistle. “Books like 'Beloved' really do force us to have real conversations about history,” she says.
AMY GOODMAN: As we mentioned, there’s been a firestorm in the Virginia race over the teaching of Toni Morrison’s acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved in schools. It stems from an ad by the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin that features a mother who once campaigned to have the book banned from her high school senior son’s curriculum. This is a clip of that ad.
LAURA MURPHY: As a parent, it’s tough to catch everything. So, when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine. I met with lawmakers. They couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Dana Williams, dean of the Graduate School and professor of African American literature at Howard University. She’s also president of the Toni Morrison Society.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dean Williams. This is an amazing teaching moment, that you have the late great Nobel, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison at the center of the Virginia race. Can you talk about the significance of this?
DANA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I would agree with you completely that it’s an amazing moment. I mean, I don’t think that there any instances where there isn’t a Morrison novel that applies to a political situation, but I don’t know that this is what she imagined.
She did have quite a bit to say, actually, about censorship and banning books, and worked with the PEN America foundation to actually publish a book called Burn This Book, where she talked a lot about censorship and really had that conversation around the idea of what it means to have good literature to create open discussions. And unfortunately, part of what we have to face and admit is that all segments of our populations just aren’t interested in the intellectualism that literature does, and there’s actually a significant anti-intellectual population.
This book, ironically, though, is an incredible metaphor for all of the things that we are trying to think about — choice, parental choice, in particular, and then it also has some resonances, ironically, too, with the abortion issue, since the book itself turns on Sethe, the main character’s decision to practice infanticide rather than have her child return to slavery. So, there’s so many different cultural elements that are present in this book that speak tremendously to the moment that we find ourselves in.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Toni Morrison in her own words, her Nobel lecture from December 1993, when she became the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
TONI MORRISON: Who doesn’t know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it’s generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference — the way in which we are like no other life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Toni Morrison in 1993. And now you have this ad. Laura Murphy is not just a Virginia mom. As we said earlier, in the ad, as she talked about her son’s embarrassment reading the book — they don’t actually refer to Beloved, but she is very well known for trying to get it banned in the schools, and ultimately trying to get a bill passed, that McAuliffe, I think, vetoed twice. Can you talk more about the significance of Beloved and this whole battle in the schools, and what Toni Morrison would say today?
DANA WILLIAMS: Well, I think a big part of the conversation is around explicit language, if you will. But we have seen so much of the conversation in the last couple of days remind us that explicit language that represents a reality pales in comparison to the reality that the people had to suffer. So, I would agree, to some degree, with those who have described the ad as a dog whistle, a racist dog whistle, as a matter of fact, particularly that element that suggests that the lawmakers turned red in the face. I mean, that, in and of itself, says that there are no Black lawmakers who were part of that conversation, just sheerly by the force of melanin, unable to turn beet red in the face, if you will.
But it also speaks to the real tension that’s happening in our public school system, in a general sense, from Texas to other places all over the country, where critical race studies or critical race theory, at least the popular culture interpretations of them, is under fire. So, how do we think about a book that helps us to think about slavery in a way that humanizes the people who were enslaved, and then create scenarios that make very clear, in ways that only fiction can? History can’t represent the emotional aspect of it. It can’t represent the sheer force of brutality around it. What are the implications of trying to create explicit warnings or ban or have some elements of censorship on those kind of books, that really teach us about a past that we have to face?
And Beloved, as this novel that really is about a haunting, the haunting of a child who says, “No, you don’t get to forget the past completely, that you must confront it” — and these are characters who overwhelmingly are trying to move away from that path of enslavement, because they have freed themselves. They have dared to try to free themselves in that kind of moment. But Beloved still is saying that confrontation must be there; otherwise, the haunting continues. And it’s what’s happening in Virginia. You really couldn’t pen a better story to suggest that if you don’t face and confront the past, whether it’s in its statuary, whether it’s in its architecture, whether it’s in the stories that we tell — if you don’t confront it, it continues to haunt us.
AMY GOODMAN: When she talks about her son, she doesn’t say he was an AP high school senior. And it’s now years later. He’s a Republican activist lawyer. But I wanted to quote Charles Blow in an article he wrote, an op-ed piece in The New York Times, saying, “Youngkin wants to resurface this coded debate because it helps Republicans convert schools into battlegrounds, where they can use the protection of children and parental rights as shields behind which to wage a culture war over race, gender and states’ rights disguised as a defense of the innocent.” If you could respond to this, Dean Williams?
DANA WILLIAMS: I would agree with that. And it only happens to be the case that Charles and I are both alumni of Grambling State University. We are probably trained quite similarly by some of the same people. So, we are well aware and very capable of understanding when there is coded language to say that the fight over culture, the fight over states’ rights, is something that we have to confront from the Civil War. That really is the war that we continue to wage. Reconstruction had some adjustments to make, and it seemed as though, in Southern states, in particular, that there would be some reckoning with the federal versus the state issues. But we know that the conversation that says that the Civil War was fought around states’ rights is not as authentic as one that really does grapple with the Civil War as being about enslavement and about the humanity of people, and who gets to choose.
So much of what we see in the Margaret Garner story, which inspires Beloved, is about an inability for even slaveholders to grapple with the legalese. I mean, they didn’t know whether to charge her with murder, because if they charged her with murder, it would mean that that child was to be considered a full human. So they opt not to and decide to focus more on the destruction of property, and then to sell her off to Louisiana. So, I think books like Beloved really do force us to have real conversations about history and to think about the culture wars and what it means to lose a culture war in the cradle of the Confederacy. It’s not lost on any of us that this is an issue that is raising its head in Virginia, in particular —
AMY GOODMAN: Julia, finally, as we’ve just lost Dean Williams, your final comments on how this is playing out in the last few days of this race in Virginia?
JULIA MANCHESTER: Well, it’s interesting. You know, we saw that ad that Youngkin put out, I believe it was Monday or — I think it was Monday. And although Beloved wasn’t mentioned in the ad and the book wasn’t explicitly mentioned, it didn’t take long for opposition researchers or journalists to google Laura Murphy and find a 2013 Washington Post article about her efforts to ban Beloved. Now, Laura Murphy said in that article she didn’t necessarily want to ban it altogether forever from the curriculum. She said that, you know, she wanted parents to at least have a say in what books were assigned, or have a say in opting what — you know, whether their children could opt out in reading a book. However, at the same time —
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Julia.
JULIA MANCHESTER: Yeah, yeah. You’ve really seen McAuliffe’s campaign very much seize upon this, especially at a time when you see a lot of big galvanization of Black voters in Virginia. It’ll be interesting to see how this impacts it.
AMY GOODMAN: Julia Manchester, thanks so much for joining us, from The Hill. And, Dean Dana Williams of Howard University, thank you so much.
That does it for our show. A very fond farewell to two special team members, our fellows Julia Thomas and Adriano Contreras. Julia and Adriano joined us before the pandemic swept the globe, demonstrated remarkable talent and resilience through this difficult time. We thank you both for your dedication and wish you the best as you move forward in your careers. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.