The campaign ad for Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin features an older blond woman, wringing her hands and telling a story about a book that her son had to read for school—one that was so upsetting, so explicit, that her “heart sunk” to think of it. Internet sleuths didn’t have to look far to find out that the woman was Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County conservative activist; the son is Blake Murphy, who’s now 27 and works for the National Republican Congressional Committee; the traumatizing reading was done almost a decade ago; and the explicit book was Toni Morrison’s much-decorated masterpiece, Beloved.
I called Emily J.M. Knox, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Information Sciences, and asked her to explain Beloved’s place in the history of book-banning and book-challenging in American schools. Knox, the author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America and the editor of Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context, explained that Murphy’s not wrong about one thing: Beloved is unusually graphic—and this can help us understand the book’s particular power.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: This isn’t the first time the inclusion of Beloved in curricula has been challenged, right?
Emily J.M. Knox: The American Library Association collects as many public challenges as possible and puts them together every three years. Beloved is not challenged nearly as much as The Bluest Eye, but that’s because The Bluest Eye is read in non-AP classes, unlike Beloved, which is an AP book. So Beloved got challenged in ’96, ’97, ’98, 2006, twice in 2007, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016. … What I talk about in my work is that it’s not really ever about the book itself. It’s about larger issues in society. Beloved is a book that’s very straight on. What Morrison does is ask that the reader look at the horrors of slavery without any blinders on, and that is actually what people dislike about the book. It’s so graphic because that’s what Morrison was trying to do.
It’s a very intimate book about slavery, very psychologically internal. The effectiveness of it overwhelms people. I was talking with a colleague about this story, and she said when she read Beloved in high school, it made her want to be a writer because she couldn’t believe any writing could do that. But reading it can also lead to another kind of reaction, as you say.
One stance I take with people who try to ban books is that they’re not wrong, in one sense. People’s reactions to books can be quite literal. Beloved is an extremely violent book, it’s absolutely true. But that is the point of the book. This mother? She’s absolutely right—it’s extremely difficult to read. It gets stuck in your head. But what she’s saying is, I don’t think people should be exposed to this aspect of history, it’s too much, and there I don’t agree, of course.
The power of fiction is that you can read about what slavery is, but what fiction does is make it, as you said, internal. You’re following one person’s story, and that’s a very different way of thinking about how history works. A lot of what people want is a sanitized version of history.
Often what people argue for is the idea that stories about Black people are interchangeable. So why read this book, when you could just have a book that’s easier to read, or less upsetting?
What books get proposed to fill in as alternatives?
I talk in this article about an English class reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the challenger suggested that people read Gifted Hands by Ben Carson instead.
OK, that’s just a little on the nose.
Right! But interesting. OK, so Angelou is interchangeable with Ben Carson? That just shows that they see Black stories as all the same story.
But they’re also kind of admitting that one is a lot more powerful than another, more disturbing, has more of a certain effect they see as threatening and negative—that’s still power.
I study reading practices, like how people interpret and think about reading as an action and a practice. What I find so often with challengers, and this is the same for challengers from the right or the left, is that there’s an idea that fiction should be uplifting. That it should also contribute certain truths, with a capital T, but also that you should not have negative reactions to what you read. Any negative reaction—so that might be embarrassment, right? You shouldn’t be embarrassed to read something out loud to the class. If the teacher would be embarrassed to do that, they say, then the book is not worth reading.
That’s so interesting, because that’s something Laura Murphy says in this ad about Beloved. She says, “I met with lawmakers. They couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red with embarrassment.”
Oh, yes, I am very familiar with that kind of language! When you study book challenges, that kind of thing comes up over and over again.
Which brings me to the question of sex. There’s sex in Beloved, really intertwined with the violence. How often has the sexual content of the book come up in challenges, as it did here, where Murphy called it “explicit”?
It’s more common in the United States, as you might guess, for people to challenge books on the basis of sex than violence. In Beloved they are intertwined, as you point out. This comes up almost every time people have challenged the book.
In my work I talk about the idea of innocence that challengers invoke. They either think of students, kids, as being a tabula rasa, and what happens when you read is that it “puts bad ideas into” the kid, by reading—it triggers sexual arousal.
The other idea people have, which Cathy Davidson calls the idea of “undisciplined imagination,” is that certain people are unable to react well when they read about sex. So that’s always the issue with reading, and sexual arousal, and kids and women—that those readers will be unable to handle how they react when reading about sex.
And when I tell my students that this idea of “undisciplined imagination” includes women readers, they can’t believe it. But look at the controversy over whether Fifty Shades of Grey should be put in public libraries. BDSM and eroticism is always an issue, and that’s always targeted at women. Books for men, like thrillers, are rarely challenged in any way.
The thing about Beloved is that this puts everything together—sex, violence. That’s why the book is a masterpiece. But I think the opening part, with the bestiality, is very hard for people to get past sometimes, but she’s trying to set the scene for what is to come—what life was like, as an enslaved person.
Right, the fact that that part is in the opening definitely adds a layer.
Yes, I don’t know if you’ll have heard about this, but there was a challenge to a book called The Higher Power of Lucky, which was actually written by a librarian and won the Newbery Medal, but had the word “scrotum” on the first page.
In one way, I do think the online reaction to the ad with the Beloved-challenging mom has been especially cathartic. If you’re on the left, you’ve spent years hearing people on the right mock you for having emotional responses to things, talking about trauma, and so on. And here’s this story of a teenager who was physically disturbed by reading a book about slavery, and it’s fun to point and say “Snowflake!” But you’re saying this kind of reaction to books is normal and common.
Right. I haven’t done much interviewing of challengers recently, but when I was doing that, I always started with the question “What was your favorite book, and why?” Because I want to start by hearing people tell me about a book that changed their lives. There’s not any doubt that reading is powerful and can really make you a different person. I don’t read horror books, because I can’t sleep! Beloved is a hard book to read. It sticks in your head. I don’t know how many years ago I read it, but I remember it very well.
The book that keeps coming up in my mind when I hear about these conversations is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I’m always shocked to hear about being assigned to high schoolers. That book is so violent and hopeless—people eat a newborn baby in it! It’s a nightmare book, but it’s not by a female writer of color, and it doesn’t have sex in it.
Yes. There is definitely a gendered aspect to books that get challenged. Dude books don’t get challenged very much. And it’s violent, but again, violence is much less often challenged than sex.
Do you think Toni Morrison’s cultural capital, and the many awards her books have won, has insulated her at all from any of these challenges?
Actually, it’s a lot more about society and what’s going on in society that changes what books are being challenged. At the moment, it’s all diverse books that are being challenged, so I’m not surprised that this has come up again. The books most challenged right now are The Hate U Give, books like that. Beloved is often not such a target because it’s considered part of the canon, which doesn’t get challenged as much. It’s a late addition to the canon—but it’s there.
But one of the things I always talk about is how the first books to get challenged will be diverse books, because the lives of people who are underrepresented and marginalized are always, by definition, more difficult.