Toni Morrison’s book Beloved recently sparked a curriculum controversy in Virgina. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens.)
Last week The Washington Post reported on a school board vote in Fairfax County, Virginia, over whether to consider removing a book from the curriculum. A mother named Laura Murphy told of how her son encountered Beloved, by Toni Morrison, in his senior high school English class. “It was disgusting and gross,” he said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” It was only one mother complaining, but that was enough: Soon, a vote was slated to consider whether to review the book’s inclusion in the curriculum. Complaints were fielded about plots points involving bestiality and gang rape—and the novel’s dramatic apex, when the escaped slave murders her 2-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be recaptured. Uncomfortable, yes, but the director of the American Library Association said discomfort was the whole point: “It’s a painful part of the African-American history in parts of this country. A lot of parents understandable want to protect their children from that…. However, we strongly advise people to read the book as a whole before they make their judgment.” The English department at the boy’s school chimed in with an eloquent public letter (“reading and studying books that expose us, imaginatively and safely, to that trouble steels our souls to pull us through out own hard time and leads us to a greater empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings”). The mom, meanwhile, assured the world she was “not some crazy book burner,” just someone concerned that “new policies be adopted to give parents more control over what their children read in the classrooms.”
It was all so very familiar to me, given the research I’ve been doing on conservatism in the 1970s, when these controversies were a constant. They unspooled themselves again and again into the 1980s and ‚90s, and, obviously, beyond. Sometimes I really do feel like actors in history—hell, why else do we call them “actors”?—read their lines from a script.
The classic 1970s textbook fight unfolded in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974. It was long, intense, riveting, and violent, and I won’t summarize it here (listen to this outstanding West Virginia Public Radio special to learn more) other than to note some common, structuring tropes.
There is the lone mother innocently going about her business, never dreaming her children’s innocence might be being despoiled by education bureaucrats, until a single, shocking discovery forces the scales from her eyes. In Kanawha the protagonist was one Alice Moore, who a couple of years after arriving in town reported herself startled to discover that the district’s comprehensive sexual education course developed with the help of a grant from the US Office of Education “wasn’t just a sexual education course. It dealt with every aspect of a child’s life…how to think, how to feel, and to act…their relationship with their parents.” The supposedly ordinary housewife transformed herself into a fierce, formidable political advocate (in the Post this week that trope was suggested by photographs that depict Laura Murphy looking steely, intense, concerned—and pretty). She ran for school board (slogan: “Put a mother on the school board”), which was how she discovered a suite of language arts textbooks being fast-tracked for approval by her liberal colleagues to introduce “multi-ethnic, multicultural balance” into the curriculum included outrages like Eldridge Cleaver celebrating the rape of white women in Soul on Ice, and texts encouraging, nay demanding, thatchildren question the revealed religion they learned at their parents knee—“compelling their children, by law, to be in that classroom, and then undermining everything they believe in…. I’m talking about ignoring Christianity, I’m talking about attacking Christianity.”