The battle for “Beloved” should remind us why we read literature at all

I’ve read some of my favorite books in the press lately. “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye”, two classics from the late Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. August Wilson’s play “Fences”. The list goes on. But these works are not legitimately celebrated. Instead, they’re used as political clubs by conservative activists who would rather your teens didn’t read them.

You’ve probably heard of the hubbub surrounding Critical Race Theory, one of those things opponents can barely define. In practical terms, these activists would prefer that public school students not study or read anything that suggests America’s history is drenched in blood, or that racism is as American as baseball, hot dogs. , apple pie and Chevrolet. You can choose almost any novel written by a black author and it could be considered a banned book.

There are, of course, some Texan angles: in the suburbs of Southlake (Dallas) to Keller (Fort Worth) to Katy (Houston), politicians, teachers, and administrators have worked hard to salvage potentially offensive books from the stores. classrooms and school libraries. But the case that really caught my eye comes from Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin rode the fabricated hysteria about “Beloved” all the way to Governor’s Mansion, defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor seeking to take over. its functions, in a race charged with alarmist ideologies.

A little background: Eight years ago, a parent in Virginia had a seizure when his son was awarded Morrison’s book for his final year AP English class. She tried unsuccessfully to have the book banned from her son’s program. As Amelia Nierenberg recently wrote in The New York Times, “Lawmakers passed what has become the ‘beloved bill,’ which would have given parents the right to deny their children reading books at home. “Sexually explicit content”. McAuliffe vetoed the legislation. Youngkin reignited the problem with a TV spot featuring parent Laura Murphy, saying McAuliffe “doesn’t think parents should have a choice.”

“Beloved” would seem like the perfect book to ignite the right at this particular time. It is slavery. It has sexual and violent content (like, of course, slavery). He uses mean language. And did I mention it was about slavery? You know, that thing the anti-CRT mob would rather you didn’t study at all. This thing that has defined the sociology and economics of the United States for almost 250 years of the country’s existence.

It also happens to one of the best (and most important) American novels of the 20th century, the one that firmly established Morrison as a master of letters (although she had previously written masterpieces, including “Song of Solomon “and, yes,” The Bluest Eye, “which has found itself at the center of many controversies over the ban over the years.) Youngkin’s ad avoided naming” Beloved “as the novel behind Murphy’s activism, but by attacking McAuliffe for vetoing the bill passed in response to his campaign, he didn’t have to. And by resuming the campaign against Beloved, he’s definitely getting into that battle. particular, aimed at a writer whose reputation is legitimate and forever assured, he also practices the “culture of cancellation”, trying to put aside a famous novel based on politics and ideology.

Although there is no shortage of cancellation attempts in the library and in the classroom, “Beloved” holds a special place for me. I wrote my graduation thesis on the novel, the cornerstone of a Morrison seminar which earned my bachelor’s degree in English. (Until recently, I had read all of her books. She experienced a late career spurt before she passed away in 2019). More than any of her other works, “Beloved” is about how the past comes back to haunt us – in this case, literally.

Morrison loosely based his novel on the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her 2-year-old daughter, Mary, rather than returning her to slavery. The ensuing trial focused on whether Garner should stand trial as a person or as property. In Morrison’s story, the murdered toddler returns from the dead as a hungry and needy young woman, sucking the life out of her mother, named Sethe in the novel. The past is very present in “Beloved”. Critical race theory is hardly needed to develop it, try as culture warriors might.

“Beloved” could be loosely described as magical realism. It’s a gritty ghost story, delivered in a poetic language that never gets overworked. Is it dark? Absoutely. These are the scars, literal and metaphorical, left by slavery and the human debris left behind. Like any ghost story worth its chills, “Beloved” is a nightmare, awake and alive. But it’s also a love story, in which Sethe realizes that the one she must love is herself. Haunted not only by her daughter but also by the institution of slavery, Sethe must learn to navigate her way and regain her self-esteem, a precious commodity in any Morrison novel. It’s a good lesson for everyone.

It’s telling that Murphy and Youngkin should go after “Beloved,” of all the books. The original complaint was about the sexual content of the novel, but let’s face it: a lot of novels have sexual content. But “Beloved” is primarily about slavery, a topic critics of racial theory would like to sweep under the table. It’s a dual culture of cancellation, sex and slavery, which were often intertwined in the pre-war annals of race and power.

Maybe it’s time to think more about why we read and what literature is. It is a stretch of the imagination, a way to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to consider the kind of hardships and difficult roads you are lucky enough not to experience, and an inner world bigger than you. -same. What is it not? A literal play of words and actions to be interpreted in isolation and marked with a red flag for meanness. What a horribly narrow view of art and literature. I pity anyone who learns to read this way.

There is more than enough shame to shop around here. There is the refusal to consider a literary masterpiece because it reflects the horrors of its setting. Perhaps the worst is the phenomenon of a single parent or politician claiming the power to determine what others have access to reading. For the Youngkins of the world, it is a matter of pure political expediency. For everyone else, here’s an idea. Does a book shock you? Don’t read it. Don’t want your teenager reading adult literature? Keep them out of AP classes. Or take the F. In other words, don’t spoil it for those who actually have an imagination or a social conscience.

Chris Vognar is a freelance writer in Houston.

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