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.