Content Notes: racist violence, slavery, infanticide, Japanese internment.
So, this is a thing: a white parent has spent 6 months trying to get the Fairfax County, Virginia school system to ban Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from its schools. Why? She feels its content isn’t suitable for children – where “children” here means older teenagers in an Advanced Placement class intended to provide college-level instruction – and is upset that reading the book gave her then 18 year old son nightmares.
Laura Murphy, the book-banning mom in question, has apparently also tried to get Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, a novel about the Canadian government’s internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, removed from the county curriculum. I have no idea what her objection to Obasan is, but there appears to be a pattern here, and it looks an awful lot like whiteness.
There’s so much one could say about this.
Firstly: Yes, Beloved is a deeply disturbing book, no doubt about that. It’s the story of a mother who would rather kill her children than be forced to have them grow up as slaves. Morrison doesn’t spare feelings or constitutions in her descriptions of all kinds of horrific violence.
I’ve read a good portion of Beloved, but have never finished it, because I was strongly advised that it wasn’t a book I wanted to read while I was pregnant (I believe my friend’s exact words were “STOP READING IT RIGHT NOW”). So, I get it. It’s an unsettling read.
It’s a bit sad that this needs saying, but many books that are worth reading can be profoundly unsettling and scary, even traumatic to read. And this is in part because many unsettling, scary, traumatic things are part of the human experience.
It’s hard for me to imagine there aren’t several books on Fairfax County’s AP English curriculum that are potentially as disturbing as Beloved or Obasan. Say, for example, Lord of the Flies, which gave me nightmares when I read it in 10th grade. Kids going feral after being stranded on a desert island and hunting and killing each other is pretty nightmarish stuff, no? Or how about Hamlet? Dude pretty much slaughters everyone at the end [eta: hyperbole alert :-p]. Let’s ban, that, too.
But no, those books are part of the awfully white male “Western canon,” and not so vulnerable to these sorts of crusades. Their literary merit is established, so the violent and disturbing aspects are more easily taken for granted. Despite Murphy’s claim that her objection to Beloved is purely about protecting kids and has nothing to do with her assessment of its literary merit, it’s quite obvious that her concerns about literary violence don’t apply equally to all books or all authors.
Two of the books Murphy has objected to are by women of color. Both of them are also about the history of white supremacist violence in North America. These things don’t seem like a coincidence.
Murphy says she’s no book-burner and that she has no problem with teens learning about “mature” topics like the Holocaust and slavery. But the content of Obasan and Beloved – which includes graphic depictions of violence and some mentions of bestiality – are apparently a bridge too far. One has to wonder exactly what Murphy thinks happened during the Holocaust and under American slavery, or if she realizes that children were victims of both.
Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner. It’s an unflinching look at a legacy of incredible violence and trauma that many Americans – especially many white Americans – would much rather not think about.
You think a novel about an institution so violent and depraved that a woman would rather kill her children than be forced to hand them over is the stuff of nightmares? Imagine the waking nightmare Margaret Garner lived, faced with the awful “choice” of murdering her own kids or watching them be returned to slavery. And she was just one person out of millions. Any honest account of this history should disturb and unsettle us.
Of course, imagining that nightmare is precisely what Murphy is insisting that her kids shouldn’t have to do. The question is, does the math add up on a claim that one white kid’s bad dreams outweigh the value thousands of students get out of confronting a history we’re all still living with the ramifications of? Including many students who are bound to be the descendants of slave owners or slaves – in some cases, both?
Murphy justifies keeping students from grappling with this history in the name of “[making] sure every kid in the county is protected.” In this reckoning, 17 and 18 year olds need protection from a few lost nights of sleep, from realizing that people are capable of doing truly awful things, from the knowledge that some people live with horrific, daily, inescapable violence.
Here’s another question: which 17 and 18 year olds need protection from this? Many teenagers know these things already. Some because it’s an unavoidable part of their history. So many others know these things from direct experience. To be able to assume a blanket right to protection that can be exercised simply by keeping scary books out of kids’ hands is the product of an amazing level of privilege and disconnectedness from reality.
As Prof. David Leonard says, the argument from a white parent living in an affluent suburb that “children” as an undifferentiated class need to be protected from merely reading about such things “speaks to sense of entitlement and notion of whose innocence, security, and personal joy deserves attention [and] protection.”
This is a roundabout sort of white supremacy that coopts the language of keeping kids safe to say that the experiences people of color actually lived are too volatile even read about. And let’s be clear, it’s not simply the fact that these are stories about people of color that is at issue. It’s the fact that these are also histories of white people, and histories that are fundamentally incompatible with mythologies of whiteness, particularly the myth of whiteness as innocence.
A history where people of color are the innocent victims of white violence is an offense to white supremacy. So demands are made for preserving the “innocence” of white kids, something that requires denying the innocence of communities of color subjected to white violence and colonialism. White students must be shielded from the trauma of confronting the violent acts and legacy of people who looked like them – perhaps even people they are descended from.
The good news is the Fairfax County School Board apparently sees Murphy’s request for what it is: not simply an attempt to “be a responsible parent,” as she says, but a demand that schools provide a a sanitized educational environment tailored for preserving the emotional comfort of white students at everyone else’s expense.