Comment: Books like ‘Beloved’ should shock us; yes, even teens

Using a story of slavery in an AP English class will disturb readers; but honest history is meant to.

By Petula Dvorak / The Washington Post

Her teenage son’s nightmares weren’t the problem.

Laura Murphy’s crusade to protect him from the truth was.

When Murphy’s son read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Beloved,” and was so moved by the brutality of the story that it gave him night terrors, he was awakened to one of the searing and true chapters of America’s past. It showed that his heart and mind were open to empathy.

Education informs, enlightens, enrages, inspires and often moves us. And democracy is in peril when we sanitize, control and censor it.

But Virginia Republicans’ campaign to galvanize conservatives and bring voters to the polls relied on fomenting fear over what children are being taught in an election that will doubtless serve as a playbook in coming races.

Morrison based the book on the true story of Margaret Garner, a 5-foot-tall woman with an angry scar down the left side of her face who tried to escape slavery by crossing the frozen Ohio River in 1856 and hiding in Cincinnati.

Garner killed one of her own children rather than send her back into slavery, likely recalling her brutal time at the Maplewood plantation in Kentucky. Three of her four children were described as “bright” or “mulatto” on census forms; and each was born around five months after the Maplewood plantation owners’ children were born.

“Southern men commonly referred to their pregnant wives’ last trimester or so when they were sexually unavailable as ‘the gander months,’” Southern Methodist University English professor Steven Weisenburger wrote in an essay on Garner. It was a time “for them to seek intimate ‘comfort’ with unmarried women. With enslaved women, if they owned any.” In other words, she was probably raped multiple times.

When U.S. marshals caught up with the family in Ohio and arrested them under the Fugitive Slave Act, Garner killed one of her children — her 2-year-old daughter, Mary — to spare her the horrors of enslavement.

“It was my own,” Garner later said, once the case made national news as a test of the Fugitive Slave Act. “Given me of God … I knew it was better for them to go home to God than back to slavery.”

Garner’s truth would fuel a powerful conversation for a mother to have with a son troubled after reading about it. That’s not what happened.

“So when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk,” Murphy said in a gauzy, grammatically sketchy fireside ad paid for by Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s campaign. “It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.”

The ad, which ran in the final weeks of the campaign, hit its mark in fueling outrage and increasingly politicizing a toxic environment for educators.

Murphy and now-Gov.-elect Youngkin resuscitated her nearly decade-old fight to argue that former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, would block parents’ involvement in education. It was a powerfully effective boogeyman, unleashed amid the backlash to critical race theory. The theory that drove many voters to the polls is used in college — not in K-12 in Virginia or anywhere else in the country — and examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

Blake Murphy was a senior taking an Advanced Placement English class at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., in 2012 when his mother’s fight began. Hundreds of thousands of people bought or borrowed a copy of the Pulitzer-winning, best-selling, made-into-a-movie, landmark book by a Nobel laureate, but the book’s stature is unimportant in her crusade, the mother of four told The Washington Post back in 2013, when she presented her complaint to the school board.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” Laura Murphy said. “It’s about the content.”


This isn’t about literature being titillating, smutty or profane. It isn’t about shutting parents out of their child’s education. (Students are welcome to opt out of the book.)

“Really, you know, one of the monstrous things that slavery in this country caused was the breakup of families,” Toni Morrison said in a 2008 interview with NPR. “I mean, physical labor, horrible; beatings, horrible; lynching death, all of that, horrible. But the living life of a parent who … has no control over what happens to your children, none. They don’t belong to you.”

Morrison brought that terror home with “Beloved.”

It’s the same horror that visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture understood when they saw one of its most popular exhibits: a cotton sack embroidered with a message of love given by an enslaved mother as her 9-year-old daughter headed to auction.

Murphy was horrified because she was probably taught about slavery the way most of us Gen Xers were: “It happened, it was bad, it’s over. Now let’s move on to the next chapter.” She didn’t have that context to understand the historical foundation of the novel; our sanitized curriculum failed her. Today’s conflict is about fixing those shortcomings.

But she used her son’s very appropriate reaction as a political tool, fighting to override teachers and appearing in a political ad.

How sad. And unproductive.

Blake Murphy, who is now 28, was probably 17 or 18 when he was assigned “Beloved” in his AP English class.

He was on the edge of adulthood, old enough to vote and join the military and go to war.

He went on to graduate from the University of Florida’s law school, was an intern in President Donald Trump’s White House and now works as assistant general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He didn’t return my calls or emails asking him to chat about the book and whether it had a lasting impact on his life.

I think this is the time that folks in his party use words like “triggered.”

When his mom took the excerpts she found most disturbing to her local lawmakers, “their faces turned bright red with embarrassment” when they read them. I’d be embarrassed, too, if I were a public official and was surprised by the content of one of America’s landmark novels.

Learning about the brutal past isn’t about guilting whites or dividing Americans. It’s about truth. And until Americans understand and acknowledge our real history — in its entirety — we can’t move forward as a united nation.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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