The Virginia gubernatorial election placed the Toni Morrison classic Beloved in the crosshairs of the conversation on race entering American classrooms. As the concept of parental choice becomes a voting concern, the banned books movement will continue to grow, resulting in the elimination of authors telling diverse stories from classrooms and libraries around the country.

As for Virginia, the banned books movement has the potential to cement itself in a bill that successfully passes and becomes law based on the incoming governor’s stance.

Beloved enters political conversation

In the last Virginia gubernatorial debate on Sept. 28, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin touched on the topic of two bills McAuliffe had vetoed twice during his time as governor. The bills would have allowed parents to receive notification of any literature assigned to students that contained sexually explicit content.

McAuliffe had been asked by a reporter about his most recent take on transgender bathroom policy for schools in the education budget portion of the debate, where he said he now preferred local school districts making the decision.

In his rebuttal, Youngkin brought up McAuliffe’s veto of the “Beloved” bill twice in 2016 and 2017.

“In fact in Fairfax County this past week, we watched parents so upset because there was such sexually explicit material in the library they had never seen—it was shocking,” Youngkin said. “In fact, you vetoed the bill that would have informed parents that they were there. You believe school systems should tell children what to do, but I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”

After calling Youngkin “clueless” about the legislation, McAuliffe said the bill would have given parents the right to take books off school library shelves. 

“I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I stopped the bill… I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” 

Youngkin, who ran his campaign on parental choice especially focused on the law school-level critical race theory curriculum that is not taught in Virginia schools, won the election on Nov. 2.

Bills target books with ‘sexually explicit content’

The original bill, HB 516, was introduced in the Virginia Legislature in 2016. The proposed bill’s text only makes up a fourth of a page, but its goal was to have local school boards notify parents of any instructional material that contains “sexually explicit content.” It was proposed by Republican delegate R. Steven Landes. 

A 2013 Washington Post article features Northern Virginia mother Laura Murphy, who approached state lawmakers about Beloved and its contents. Media outlets reported that she and her husband are Republican activists and their son, who was assigned Beloved in his high school English class, eventually worked a short stint in the Trump administration. 

“When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine,” Murphy said in the Youngkin campaign ad that was released after the debate. “I met with lawmakers; they couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment.” The bill was bipartisan, she added. 

The bill passed the House and Senate awaiting approval by McAuliffe, the governor at the time. He vetoed the bill. 

“Open communication between parents and teachers is important, and school systems have an obligation to provide age-appropriate material for students,” he wrote in his veto message. “However, this legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context.” 

House members voted to override the veto, but the 66 yes and 34 no vote failed because 67 yes votes were required. So the bill died by one vote.

The next session the bill’s purpose is reintroduced by Landes in HB 2191 that adds local school boards should develop policies and procedures to address sexual abuse complaints from students by teachers and other school staff. This version fills up one page.

Again, the bill’s reincarnation passes the Legislature and arrives on the governor’s desk. And again, McAuliffe successfully vetoes it, with the House two votes short of overriding the veto. 

A detail news outlets picked from the WaPo article mention how Murphy said her son suffered from night terrors when reading Beloved as a high school senior.

Banning a book in essence can be a nightmare, Toni Morrison wrote in the introduction in 2012’s Burn This Book: Notes on Literature and Engagement published by HarperCollins Publishers, in which she served as the anthology’s editor.

The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, cancelled films—that thought is a nightmare.

Toni Morrison, Burn This Book

Learning the traumas of slavery via literature

Beloved centers around Sethe, a former slave woman living in Ohio, who had killed her baby daughter after being discovered as an escapee. Years later, the dead daughter returns as Beloved, a visible young woman obsessed with getting Sethe’s attention. The paranormal activity that grips Sethe and her family eventually stretches beyond their control and outside their haunted home. 

In the first chapter alone, there are references to the infanticide and subsequent haunting, rape, lynchings, and stolen breast milk in relation to Sethe’s traumatic journey of living as a slave. Because of themes interlaced in slavery and violence, the book has been banned or challenged in school districts since the 1990s, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom that tracks the removal attempts of books from libraries, schools, and universities.

Beloved, Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1988, along with other notable awards such as the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the Melcher Book Award. Five years later, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality,” the foundation’s website notes.  

What has been missing from the latest news coverage is how the award-winning novel is based on a true story. 

“The Modern Medea” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble 1867 based on the story of Margaret Garner. Library of Congress.

Sethe is inspired by the real-life Margaret Garner, a slave from Kentucky who escaped to Ohio with her husband and four children. Then one night in 1856, slave catchers and U.S. marshals acting on the Fugitive Slave Act surrounded her free cousin’s home and demanded she turn herself and her family in. Instead, she slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter before she was subdued. She had plans to kill her other children then herself rather than return to the abuse of her owner. 

Scholars have studied infanticide as a form of resistance to slavery; one less person to be considered property to the slave owner and the mother believing she saved her child from the horrors of the institution. This type of violent reality is usually left out of the average K-12 curricula, where a book like Beloved fills that gap in knowledge.

Margaret Garner’s case may have attracted more attention because historians believe she was a mulatto and so were two of her children suspected to have been the children of her owner produced by rape. She stood trial for her baby’s killing, where she was indicted on charges of damage to property. Her family was returned to their owner who sold them to his brother. She died of typhoid fever in 1858 at around 25 years old.

Toni Morrison would later write the 2005 opera, Margaret Garner, based on the woman’s life that inspired Beloved.

Amid the election popularizing Beloved again, Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye was recently removed in Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ libraries, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.