While most people would consider Beloved by Toni Morrison to be a haunting and masterful work of art, it seems that certain lawmakers in Virginia take a different view — and they're not interested in hearing opinions to the contrary. Richard Black, a Virginia state senator, recently called Beloved "moral sewage" in an email to an AP English teacher contacting him in defense of the book and in opposition to a law that would allow parents to opt their children out of reading certain books in school. I'll give you a moment to get some of your frustrated screaming out of the way now.
So how did we find ourselves in a situation where a lawmaker — who certainly seems to have never actually read Beloved — is lecturing an English teacher about one of the most lauded pieces of American literature? Well, during a debate of Virginia Bill HB 516, which would allow people to opt their children out of reading certain books in school, someone got the bright idea that the best way to contribute to a productive, nuanced debate was to read passages of assigned high school English books out of context. And you'll never guess which one they picked.
That's right! Beloved.
Beloved was published in 1987, and it has been inspiring charged reactions since it first came out. It's a story that deals unflinchingly with the aspects of slavery that tend to get skipped over in history classes — things like sexual violence and torture. The book also delves into the psychological scars that American slavery left upon its victims. It is not a pretty book, and it has been a frequent target of parental objections; in fact it's one of the most banned and challenged books of the past 15 years. And there are plenty of passages to take out of context and paint it in a negative light — after all, it depicts a lot of terrible things. But taken together, it is a immensely powerful and important work of literature.
Objecting to both the proposed law and the way Beloved was being used to justify passing it, AP English teacher Jessica Berg emailed the state legislators, urging them not to pass HB 516 and supporting the literary merits of Beloved. In his response to her, State Senator Richard Black wrote the following:
I was surprised by your personal advocacy of the book “Beloved.” That book is so vile - - so profoundly filthy - - that when a Senator rose on the Senate Floor and began reading a single passage, several other Senators leapt to their feet to interrupt the reading. Susan Schaar, the Senate Clerk, quickly had embarrassed Senate Officials rush the teenage Senate Pages from the Senate Floor in order to protect them from exposure to this moral sewage.
He went on to imply that her support of the book made her unfit to work with children. Because, of course, he knows more about both literature and children than someone who teaches for a living. And he concluded by saying that he "will continue to work for a parent’s right to know when their child is going to be exposed to such vile materials by their teacher."
Black also provided Gawker with a list of the number of "offensive" references in the book, which includes references to things like "breasts." He also refused to answer questions about whether or not he had read the book.
Remember that thing I said about frustrated screaming?
No one is pretending that Beloved is an easy book to read — for anyone, teens or adults. But speaking as someone who in fact did read Beloved in my high school English class, I can say with confidence that it's a book teenagers can handle, especially if it's being taught by a capable teacher. And not only was I not scarred by Beloved, but I am a better person for having read it.
Literature can show us difficult things without endorsing them. Literature can make us feel uncomfortable without being bad. Literature can scare us and disgust and shake us to our core, and that is precisely what makes literature not just powerful but essential.
Virginia HB 516 passed both houses of the state legislature, but was vetoed by the governor, and mercifully will not become law. But the ignorant attitudes exemplified by Richard Black in this email still persist. Hopefully, though, it won't make it into law any time soon.