A new ad for Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin features a solemn, almost anguished white woman talking about the wrongs done to her and her child by former Virginia governor and current Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. There’s one key piece of information the ad very conspicuously doesn’t provide, though, and Virginia voters really need to hear about it.
“When my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk,” Laura Murphy says in the ad. “It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” She recounts how, at her urging, the state legislature passed a bill requiring public schools to give parents the opportunity to reject “sexually explicit” reading assignments, only to have then-Gov. McAuliffe veto it.
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Sounds bad, right? Some of the most explicit material you can imagine … I mean, were Virginia schools assigning Hustler magazine as reading material? Nowhere in the one-minute ad does she identify the book that distressed Murphy so much that she pushed for the law to be changed, the material that she showed to lawmakers who “couldn’t believe what I was showing them. Their faces turned bright red in embarrassment.”
There’s a reason for the omission. That book was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel based on a true story in which a woman who had escaped slavery only to be tracked down and captured killed her own child rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was cited a few years later when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It routinely shows up on lists of the greatest American fiction of the 20th century. It makes regular appearances on the AP Literature exam.
Gosh, I wonder why the Youngkin campaign didn’t make sure everyone in Virginia knew which book had upset the face of their ad so much. Beloved is a difficult book, to be sure, because its subject matter—which is a part of U.S. history—was more than difficult. It was monstrous. But the book is a modern classic for a reason.
“It’s not about the author or the awards,” Murphy said back in 2013 when she was pushing to have Beloved banned from Fairfax County schools. “It’s about the content.” Her son, a senior Advanced Placement English student at the time he was assigned the book, had nightmares about it.
“It was disgusting and gross,” he told a reporter. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” When liberal parents or parents of color object to having their kids exposed to racism or sexism, conservatives squawk about “snowflakes” and shout “f#ck your feelings.” But when a high school senior finds it “hard for me to handle” reading about slavery, his mom tries to get the law changed to protect him. Blake Murphy, by the way, seems to have grown up to be a Republican Party lawyer, in case anyone is wondering where this family is coming from.
For Laura Murphy’s part, she claimed, “I don’t shelter my kids, but I have to be a responsible parent.” And as everyone knows, being a responsible parent who doesn’t shelter their kids extends to seeking to have one of the greatest novels of the 20th century banned so that your high school senior doesn’t encounter something too hard to handle—something he’s likely to encounter on his AP exam. Other books she wanted to see banned included Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Hmm … three of the four books she wanted banned were by Black authors. Isn’t that interesting?)
A letter urging McAuliffe to veto the bill—which was signed by the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Teachers of English, the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Children's and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN American Center—argued that the bill “would prejudice educationally valuable content, undermine the quality of public education in Virginia, and contravene important First Amendment principles,” and noted: “The bill is silent on what content would be labelled ‘sexually explicit,’ or how that term would be defined. On its face, however, the term is vague and could apply to a great deal of classic and contemporary literature, including Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, the Bible, and most works by William Shakespeare.”
This is the culture war Glenn Youngkin is trying to win with in Virginia. This is the wedge he hopes will clear the way to restricting abortion, making it harder to vote, and enacting a laundry list of other Republican priorities.
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