I’ve been following this story since I saw it a couple of days ago. A Virginia mom wants to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved from high schools because it supposedly gave her 18-year-old son nightmares. Says Racialicious, “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.” And I agree.
Look, there is plenty of disturbing crap in the Old White Man canon of high school already. Before I got to Beloved in senior year, I’d already been through Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter, which, I mean, kids murdering each other and women being shunned for having sex. But okay. This woman’s quest reeks of “white people wanting their kids to be sheltered from real stuff.”
Let me tell you about my experience with Beloved in high school. I read it senior year in AP English. I was attending a Catholic high school in upstate New York. My class was taught by a nun and she was good. And I mean, really good. As in, I would later go on to major in English and realize that this was the ONE class I took in high school that ran exactly like my small college English seminars would later run. This teacher was tough and she expected a lot from us. For class we would circle up and she would lead us in discussions which were much more interesting and advanced than anything I was used to.
I’ve always been a reader. But a lot of times I would half-ass the reading for my English classes in high school, mostly because A) I’d usually already read the book three years ago, or B) it wasn’t really my style and I knew how to skim well enough to get through the level of questioning and discussion we would have in class. I could not half-ass Sister Judith’s class. It was probably my first experience with deep analysis of a text. (First of many, as I would go on to double major in English and Philosophy.) And look, Laura Murphy from Virginia, if your son goes to a liberal arts college (the article says he is currently a freshman at UF) or even takes any liberal arts classes, you are doing him a huge disservice here. Because colleges do not give a crap what parents think of the reading. You’re not protecting your child here. What you are doing is preventing him from being prepared for mature discussion of mature material.
And maybe the issue is that this kid needed to grow up. Because, yes, Beloved is about a woman who kills her baby, who then goes on to haunt the entire family. But it’s about the language and shared cultural experiences and deep secrets and learning to forgive yourself and growing up and whether or not you can escape the past and how you reconcile your sense of self with the horrible things that have happened to you. When I read the book, I was mesmerized and immediately in awe of the language, the mix of vernacular and poetry. I knew this was one of the greatest books I would probably ever read. I was seventeen. This book just wrung me out. We watched the movie in class because it had just come out, but for me it didn’t compare because for me the writing is what makes this book amazing.When I finished reading for class, I went back and read it again.
If you read Beloved and all you get is, “Dude, the woman murdered her kid and there was BESTIALITY DUDE,” I’m going to guess that most of what makes this book a modern classic went right over your head. It haunted this 18-year-old kid’s dreams? I mean, are we complaining about this now? Are we supposed to seriously read great works of literature about the most harrowing parts of our history as human beings and not have them haunt our dreams?
You’re reading it wrong.