Glenn, you, sir, are no match for Mother Toni.
In the homestretch of the campaign for governor of Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin is dredging up a years-old debate over banning the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Beloved" by the Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison.
Youngkin has just released an ad that features Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County mother, who complains about "some of the most explicit material you can imagine" in one of her son's reading assignments.
It is important to note here that the reading Murphy is referring to was assigned almost a decade ago. The son who was so upset by it, Blake Murphy, is now a lawyer in his late 20s who works for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
In the ad, Murphy says that she met with lawmakers who couldn't believe what she was showing them and whose faces "turned bright red with embarrassment."
(Just a note here: When you talk about people's faces turning bright red, Black people know that you are talking about white people; dark-skinned people don't do that. For us, it is a subtle way of indicating race without ever having to mention it.)
Murphy goes on to say that the Virginia General Assembly passed bills requiring schools to notify parents when "explicit content was assigned," but then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (the current Democratic candidate for governor) vetoed the bills twice.
The bill came to be known as the "Beloved bill."
In 2013, Murphy told The Washington Post that she imagined mature content meant "slavery or the Holocaust," but she didn't expect her child to be reading "a book with bestiality."
To be clear, the references to bestiality in "Beloved" involve enslaved men having sex with cows, "dreaming of rape, thrashing on pallets, rubbing their thighs and waiting on the new girl."
The novel also covers gang rape by white men of a Black woman, who ultimately kills her own child to prevent her from enduring the slavery she has endured.
To be sure, this is not delicate fare, but "Beloved" accurately and brutally portrays slavery as a horrific institution that eats away at the souls and sanity of both enslaver and enslaved. In the presence of that much savage inhumanity, the borders of morality blur or are completely obliterated.
There is no way to teach slavery accurately while omitting sexual violence. Rape and perversion are central to the slave narrative. Violence came not only from the lash, but also from lust.
Sexual violence was pervasive during slavery. As PBS's "Slavery and the Making of America" series notes:
"Within the bonds of slavery, masters often felt it their right to engage in sexual activity with Black women. Sometimes, female slaves acquiesced to advances, hoping that such relationships would increase the chances that they or their children would be liberated by the master. Most of the time, however, slave owners took slaves by force."
A 2014 study examining 23andMe data found that the average African American genome was about a quarter European. That genetic material didn't just drop out of the sky.
The bills that McAuliffe vetoed would have required schools to notify parents of "sexually explicit content," but as the National Coalition Against Censorship pointed out in a letter:
"The bill is silent on what content would be labelled 'sexually explicit,' or how that term would be defined. On its face, however, the term is vague and could apply to a great deal of classic and contemporary literature, including Anne Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl,' Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales,' Theodore Dreiser's 'An American Tragedy,' Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five,' Gustave Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary,' Sherman Alexie's 'The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian,' the Bible, and most works by William Shakespeare."
But, of course, those works were not the object of offense here. The work that offended parents like Laura Murphy positioned white men as uncontrollable, irrepressible sexual deviants, the very pathology that enslavers tried to project onto the enslaved.
"Beloved" was indicted because it was an indictment.
Now, 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.
But picking a fight over "Beloved" and the great Toni Morrison, the ancestral beloved, is an unwinnable battle. Some suburban white women voters may fall for this, and that is precisely whom Youngkin is targeting, but on the merits, on the history, on the piercing devastation of the institution of slavery and the myths that attend it, Morrison wins by knockout in the first round.
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