On Book Banning

Why Beloved and books like it deserve a place in the classroom

Tyler Palicia

Glenn Youngkin has been open about his desire to ban books in schools. The official reasons that Youngkin and his supporters give for engaging in this attack on public education is that teachers will use certain works to spread “critical race theory” (if only) and expose children to “pornographic material.” Those are slanderous excuses intended to Trojan horse a reactionary political agenda. I don’t think one can find any clearer example of that fact than the outrage over a novel called “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize Laureate, 1993).

To those who are unfamiliar with the work, “Beloved” is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was met with mega acclaim upon its publication in 1987. It tells the story of a Black mother and daughter living outside of Cincinnati shortly after the Civil War. Throughout the novel, both women are literally and metaphorically haunted by the traumas of slavery.

Currently, “Beloved” is ranked as the forty-fifth most banned or challenged book between 2010 and 2019 by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The novel is often challenged for being “pornographic.” What I find most perverse about that claim is the idea that the allusions to rape in this novel, which are always sensitively described to bring out the true horrors of the act, could possibly fall under anyone’s classification of “pornography.” First of all, none of the novel’s violent sexual content is ever supposed to be titillating. In fact, if you find this novel to be sensual in any way, then I’d say you are in desperate need of a psychiatrist. Secondly, the discussion of the rape of enslaved people is entirely necessary when teaching the subject of slavery. After all, sexual assault was one of the most integral elements of that institution, and I don’t think there is any better text to teach the subject through than “Beloved.”

It’s also quite telling that this book falls under the broad umbrella of what conservatives refer to as “Critical Race Theory texts.” Youngkin even ran a campaign largely based on keeping critical race theory (or CRT) out of K-12 education, even though it’s strictly a college subject. But I find that when conservatives talk about not wanting CRT to be taught in schools, that’s just code for: “We don’t want our kids learning about any Black history, unless white people are always portrayed as the good guys.” That certainly would explain the deep resentment many right-wing parents feel for “Beloved.”

But don’t take my word for it. Youngkin’s own camp even ran an ad in which a mother complained about the harrowing experience she endured after her son — a high school senior taking a college level English course — claimed to have suffered horrible nightmares after reading “Beloved.” For reasons I’ll address later, the mother wouldn’t identify the book by its title, at least not in the ad. This very anxious, very white woman even approached lawmakers to push for legislation that would grant parents the right to ban their children from reading certain books in school — Ugly. 

Of course, the part about the delicate child (or should I say, legal adult man) having nightmares was probably a lie, but if the mother really was telling the truth, I think that’s a strong testament to how good the novel is and why more high schoolers should be forced to read it. Great literature can be disturbing sometimes, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to ban it in schools, especially not if it’s a work as important as “Beloved.” You’ll find this insane ad linked at the bottom of this essay. 

Some readers might say I’m cherry picking this novel out of a list of works that parents might more reasonably take issue with, but I assure you that’s far from the case. Just take a cursory glance at the other frequently challenged books on the ALA list, and I promise you’ll find plenty more renowned classics. This is a historical issue that did not begin with Glenn Youngkin and surely will not end with him, which is why you should always be highly skeptical of parental complaints over school reading material. 

I don’t take these parents seriously because they have no valid concern. They only like literature when its message happens to dovetail with their own political and religious beliefs, and as a parent you don’t have a right to burden the public school system with those values. I still haven’t come across a single example of a “concerned parent” who can even define their favorite euphemism, Critical Race Theory, and I’m led wonder if any of them, including Youngkin himself, have ever even seen real pornography. 

Also notice that in all the propaganda on this subject, neither Youngkin nor the concerned parents ever cite any specific examples of works they’d like to see banned, because if these rubes actually admitted to the broader public that they didn’t want their kids reading American classics by Nobel Prize winning Black authors, they’d be giving the game away too easily. But at the end of the day, it’s just another classic example of how the Republican Party fights the culture war, with false aggrievement and dishonesty.

There is of course a gray area where parents, teachers, and sometimes lawmakers can have a reasonable debate over which types of reading material are suitable for children at certain ages, but Youngkin and his supporters are threatening to advance well beyond that territory into an area of outright fascist suppression. Now that Governor Youngkin will soon occupy power, it’s up to normal people not to be deceived or willed into compromising on an issue where there is no middle ground.

ALA Banned Book List

Concerned Mother for Youngkin