Protecting white kids from history

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.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton in "Beloved."

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton in Beloved. Still from The Ascension Blog

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.

27 Comments

  1. I’ve taught AP English Lit and AP English Lang. I have had kids and/or parents on occasion request a different text (or ask to be excused during a discussion of a particular section of a text). I think that can be a powerful form of self-advocating (most recently, a suicide scene was too trigger-y for a kid who had recently dealt with something similar), but trying to ban a book for other people’s kids is ridiculous.

    BTW, “how about Hamlet? Dude pretty much slaughters everyone at the end.” Hamlet or Shakespeare? Hamlet –yes, finally –kills Claudius. Laertes’s poisoned foil kills both Hamlet and himself. Gertrude drinks the poison cup, knowing it’s poison. Just spent two days with Hamlet for IB English oral exams.

    • I’m definitely in favor of kids self-advocating and making space for self-care in the class room. But yea, not the basis for county-wide decisions about curricula.

      Re: Hamlet – that was a bit of dramatic license/hyperbole :-p

      • Several English teachers were talking at lunch yesterday about the Fairfax Beloved brouhaha. We agreed that it’s important to remember how young high school students are when choosing texts — there are some books that are a better fit for folks at different stages of life, for a variety of reasons.

        High school students are so big and so little all at the same time. Some are dealing with horrific circumstances beyond their control, while others are in for some big surprises about life, the universe, and everything. Some are having sex, while others are wondering if they’ll be 30 and never been kissed. Some are partying, and some still pretend to be at Hogwarts in their rooms (and some do both). They wear both Dora the Explorer and Abercrombie. I can never assume the same circumstances and life experiences for the individuals in my very varied classes.

        My job is to balance making the classroom as safe and challenging. My honors students are reading Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian which often gets banned because it talks positively about masturbation (in passing)–and deals with issues related to alcoholism and poverty and violence and racism, but my students love it. Some finish it the first night and read it over and over — it’s real, relevant, funny, and human. Some don’t like those references but appreciate the rest of it.

        • I love this comment, acme! I think there’s definitely room for balancing the needs of individual kids with the merits of reading difficult books. It sounds like that’s already in place in Fairfax Co., though – kids can opt out of reading books that make them uncomfortable.

          • As a former NoVA resident (21 years), I think Fairfax County is *exactly* the kind of place where someone would try to get Beloved and the other titles banned. It’s not something I would ever expect to happen over in Montgomery County (has much to do with demographics, religion and what I saw as an overwhelming front of whiteness in FX Co. when I lived there – not my cuppa at all).

  2. Yep, that is ALL it is. An attempt at a *literal* white-washing of history.

    SIGH

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. Thanks for writing about this. There’s some serious disconnect going on here.

  4. She said she wanted her children to learn about slavery. Ummm… Except when it causes discomfort. I guess she wants a sterile environment to learn such atrocities?

  5. that poor boy… his mother protecting him from frightening dreams at 18?! will he ever survive in the “real” world? best wishes to him.
    well, anyhow, that impetuous mother has inspired me to read a literary work i’ve too long overlooked. thanks to her. And you! :)

  6. While I do agree that the mother may want to protect her 18 year old child from such a horrific read, it still does not dissipate the fact that she is depriving an entire population of students the right to understand the struggles of an earlier America. It may not be her intention but she may be subliminally conditioned to sway in favor of protecting white supremacist ideas. This is not how we teach our kids to live in progressive world.

    Kudos to the Fairfax County School Board for putting their foot down and not agreeing to this form of literary discrimination masked by some claim to unreasonable protection.

  7. BoyOrHedgehog says:

    “To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Laura Murphy said. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”

    This comment really sums up everything that’s wrong with this woman’s campaign (and head) to me. The point at which you think slavery is *less upsetting than bestiality* is the point at which you have to take a step back and get your head on straight.

    I read Beloved as a 21yo white Australian, very ignorant about the US slavery story. I remember it kicking me in the fucking guts. It’s an awful, intense, crushing read. But the point is, it is not gratuitous. Morrison isn’t adding or exaggerating anything that wasn’t already there for thrills or shock value. She is just making you see the horror that maybe your white privilege allowed you to obscure. If that hurts, then good. It should hurt. It should wake you up at night.

  8. I was super sheltered from this stuff growing up. Didn’t hear stories like Margaret Garner’s until I took a class on WoC feminisms. Didn’t know about Japanese internment or America’s treatment of Native people until college. When I did learn these things and came back home to talk to my parents about them, I was told I was falling for a “liberal rewrite” of history. Yeah, you’re spot on about this being part of White supremacy. So many of us white people just grow up ignorant of this because of deliberate efforts to keep us ignorant.

  9. Terrific piece. So glad to have come across it, and you, courtesy of Racialicious.

  10. Mary Driftwood says:

    I read Beloved as a junior in high school (I think) and yes, it’s brutal. It was long enough ago that I don’t remember a lot of the plot, but the scene that I think was the reason why your friend told you to stop reading? That will be in my brain forever. This mom may think she has her son and the kids in general’s best interests at heart, but she clearly does not, and I hope she doesn’t get her way.

  11. I’m glad people are at least acknowledging that this parent is ridiculous. I feel like lately the more likely reaction is for people to call this sort of silencing of curriculum “first amendment rights,” which it’s really not.

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  15. I don’t know how it’s usually handled in the ‘States, but growing up in England I watched programmes about the Holocaust in primary school. I saw images of hideously starved people and of gas chambers. Other horrors were discussed. No-one was worried about protecting children from this – it was thought vital that we should understand and remember – yet most of the kids in my class were happy and seemed pretty well-adjusted as they grew up, even those who cried at the time. I am not convinced, then, that American teenagers are too fragile to cope with the realisation that people do bad things to other people.

    One thing I was sheltered from as a child, because people thought it inappropriate and potentially traumaric, was writing and imagery on the subject of sexual violence. Had I had access to such material I think I would have been able to process and understand my own experiences of such violence much sooner, and possibly prevent some of it. The attempt to keep children from trauma by maintaining their ignorance renders them ill equipped to deal with life, and we cannot assume that life is going to be fluffy and happy for all of them at any stage. Even if it means privileged communities asking difficult questions and past and present, knowledge is power, and children deserve to be empowered – isn’t that, ultimately, the point of education?

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  17. Thank you for posting this. Certain books perhaps should be read at different points in life, but never tell someone that they CAN’T read a book.

  18. While I don’t agree that the book should be banned county-wide, I don’t necessarily agree that the mother is trying to white-wash history. I believe that we should know our history but in my experience in school whenever slavery or Native American history was discussed it always felt like I should somehow feel guilty because I am white so my ancestors obviously must have been slave owners or been responsible for the native americans being displaced from their homes and abused. I do think that is wrong. I have no control over what my ancestors did or did not do and that certainly doesn’t make me responsible. Yes our children need to know the history but we should be careful how we teach them that history.

  19. Yeah you know… a lot of horrible things have happened in the history of humankind, but I don’t think any of them should be ignored. On the contrary, if we’re to learn from them we need to know about them.

  20. Oh,, the awful irony of someone living in Fairfax Co. trying to get this book banned, when it’s basically a local history-type text.

    Back in the mid-late 80s, there were still small, isolated communities of black folks in FX Co. who were direct descendants of people who were enslaved by Lord Fairfax (for whom the county is named); living in places that were, at one time, part of the Fairfax plantation. (There was a WaPo article about it; wish I had that handy, and am not sure if I could successfully dig it out of their archives – search function is kind of hit or miss.)

    While I really do appreciate the fact that some things are triggering for some kids, choosing to hide things like slavery, the Holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII is just insane – and definitely willful ignorance at best; a vicious and insidious form of racism and anti-semitism at worst. My guess is that the woman in question doesn’t even realize the extent to which she’s perpetrating these things. (Which is no excuse, but still…)

    A very painful fact: the plot of Beloved was prefigured during the First Crusade. See, there was a pogrom – started by Crusaders – in parts of Germany and France, and many local Jewish people killed their children and themselves rather than submit to forced conversion (and likely rape and other forms of violent degredation [sp?]). I 1st read about this in Evan S. Connell’s book Deus Lo Volt!, which is an ever-so-slightly fictionalized account of the First Crusade. I was so shocked that at first I thought the incidents were greatly exaggerated – or entirely fictional.

    Then I did some research and found out that, if anything, Connell’s version was all too painful and absolutely true. The people who died have been revered as martyrs for their faith since 1096 (the year the pogroms took place).

    Well, I’m rambling, but… all this to say that I do appreciate your post on this, Grace. I hope this attempt at book banning meets with the fate it deserves – oblivion.

  21. P.S.: I am a baby boomer and could not have avoided learning about the Holocaust and the internments – it was all just out there. (Growing up in a partly-Jewish ‘hood had something to do with that, though both my parents were very aware of human rights issues and helped break some of this to my younger self – in early grade school – as gently as possible.)

    I guess that now it is easier to go through life not knowing, but it’s certainly *not* a good way to live, let alone by “educated.”

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