The Controversy Over Beloved

Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved was mentioned on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday night. I had no idea why it was even mentioned but I checked my Netflix list and saw that we had not seen the movie, so I added it. Then, this morning I read on article in The Guardian titled – The Republicans’ racial culture war is reaching new heights in Virginia by Sidney Blumenthal and my interest was peaked.

My mom was born in Virginia. You could almost say it was an accident but it was not. My mom was adopted and for my entire growing up years, I thought she was born in Memphis TN and was adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. That latter part is correct but Memphis was not her birthplace. That is what my adoptive grandparents were led to believe and then later the TCHS muddled their way through an explanation. My mom’s grandfather’s family did immigrate into the US at Virginia from Scotland prior to the Revolutionary War which some of our kin actually fought in. My grandmother’s father sent her there to Virginia to give birth to my mom away from gossiping locals in their small rural town East of Memphis. I suspect there were still some family ties living there at the time. My mom’s father seemed to my grandmother’s family to have abandoned her at 4 months pregnant. I prefer to keep a kinder perspective on that man, full of sorrow after losing a wife and a son to untimely deaths, and this perspective was softened after meeting my cousin who shares with me this man as a grandfather. I cannot ever really know the reason why he left (though I do have theories) or why he didn’t come to my grandmother’s aid when she returned to Memphis with my baby mom. I just have to let the questions be forever unanswered.

It turns out that Glenn Youngkin who is running for governor on the Republican side of things has made this novel by Morrison his last campaign stand. Of course, there is more to the story than that and the “more” has to do with Virginia history (which I will admit that I am still somewhat ignorant regarding). Youngkin’s campaign has contrived a brand-new enemy within, a specter of doom to stir voters’ anxieties that only he can dispel: the Black Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and her novel Beloved.

Youngkin waded into the murky waters of racial politics. He offered himself as the defender of schoolchildren from the menace of critical race theory, even though the abstruse legal doctrine is not taught in any Virginia public school. Youngkin then seized upon a novel racial symbol. The Pulitzer prize-winning novel is about the psychological toll and loss of slavery, especially its sexual abuse, and considered one of the most important American literary works. And there is a history to the issue in Virginia.

Somewhat disingenuously Youngkin has explained it in a campaign ad this way. “When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk,” Laura Murphy, identified as “Fairfax County Mother”, said in the Youngkin ad. “It was some of the most explicit reading material you can imagine.” She claimed that her son had nightmares from reading the assignment in his advanced placement literature class. “It was disgusting and gross,” her son, Blake, said. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” As it happens, in 2016 Murphy had lobbied a Republican-majority general assembly to pass a bill enabling students to exempt themselves from class if they felt the material was sexually explicit. Governor McAuliffe vetoed what became known as “the Beloved bill”.

“This Mom knows – she lived through it. It’s a powerful story,” tweeted Youngkin. Ms Murphy, the “Mom”, is in fact a longtime rightwing Republican activist. Her husband, Daniel Murphy, is a lawyer-lobbyist in Washington and a large contributor to Republican candidates and organizations. Their delicate son, Blake Murphy, who complained of “night terrors”, was a Trump White House aide and is now associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which sends out fundraising emails.

The offending novel is a fictional treatment of a true story with a Virginia background, a history that ought to be taught in Virginia schools along with the reading of Beloved. In 1850, Senator James M Mason, of Virginia, sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act. “The safety and integrity of the Southern States (to say nothing of their dignity and honor) are indissolubly bound up with domestic slavery,” he wrote. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped from her Kentucky plantation into the free state of Ohio. She was the daughter of her owner and had been repeatedly raped by his brother, her uncle, and gave birth to four children. When she was cornered by slave hunters operating under the Fugitive Slave Act, she killed her two-year-old and attempted to kill her other children to spare them their fate. Garner was returned to slavery, where she died from typhus.

In the aftermath of her capture, Senator Charles Sumner, the abolitionist from Massachusetts, denounced Mason on the floor of the Senate for his authorship of the bill, “a special act of inhumanity and tyranny”. He also cited the case of a “pious matron who teaches little children to relieve their bondage”, sentenced to “a dungeon”. He was referring to Margaret Douglass, a southern white woman who established a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia. She was arrested and sent to prison for a month “as an example”, according to the judge. When she was released, she wrote a book on the cause of Black education and the culture of southern rape. “How important, then,” she wrote, “for these Southern sultans, that the objects of their criminal passions should be kept in utter ignorance and degradation.”

Virginia’s racial caste system existed for a century after the civil war. In 1956, after the supreme court’s decision in Brown v Brown of Education ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, Virginia’s general assembly, with Confederate flags flying in the gallery, declared a policy of massive resistance that shut down all public schools for two years. The growth of all-white Christian academies and new patterns of segregation date from that period. Only in 1971 did Virginia revise its state constitution to include a strong provision for public education.

Youngkin well understands the inflammatory atmosphere in Virginia in which he is dousing gasoline and lighting matches. Branding Beloved as sexually obscene was always an abstracted effort to avoid coming to terms with slavery, especially its sexual coercion. Parental control is Youngkin’s abstract slogan for his racial divisiveness. Beloved is his signifier to the Trump base that he is a safe member of the cult, no longer an untrustworthy corporate type. Youngkin’s reflexive dependence on the strategy reveals more than the harsh imperatives of being a candidate in the current Republican party. It places him, whether he knows or not, cares or not, objects or not, in a long tradition in the history of Virginia that the Commonwealth has spent decades seeking to overcome.

To this political post, I add an admission. My maternal line roots are ALL Confederate – on both her mother’s and her father’s side. It is a fact that I am personally not proud of, even if I had nothing to do with it. I still own that it is a part of my personal family history – sadly.

Seeking To Clarify The Story

Recently a friend alerted me to a writing contest, called the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize that is hosted by The Missouri Review (my home state), that will pay $5,000 to winners in the Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry categories along with a few other perks. At first, I really wasn’t going to add the distraction as I’m in the process of editing my two manuscripts. One is yet another revision of my adoption roots story. However, yesterday, I did a 180 on this. I need to condense down my almost 90,000 word manuscript to 8,500 words. The deadline is Oct 1st and so this is just a temporary distraction that may yet pay dividends for my effort to tell the story.

I realized that at this point in my process (I am almost done with my first read through to correct from a first person present narrative to a third person omniscient perspective and won’t say I’ve caught all of the outliers !!) that tightening up the story to the basic facts might be a good process. Certainly, $5,000 would be welcome and winning this year’s contest would open the door to getting the revised manuscript published. So, yesterday I began the effort in earnest.

I’ve told this story so many times, in so many ways. When sharing it vocally one-on-one with other people, there seems to be some interest. Unlike back in the early 1990s, when my mom was seeking to connect with the woman who gave birth to her (and was devastated to learn that she had died some years earlier) or at least receive her full adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I am seeing today, whereas in my mom’s push few adoptees made the effort, today attempts to create reunions are now common for adoptees and donor conceived persons.

Beyond that, many people are not well versed in their family genealogy and much of my own successful effort was not only connecting with living relatives from each branch of my family (both of my parents were adopted) but learning the stories of my ancestors – some of which stretched back prior to the American Revolution. I found connections to the Civil War that thankfully are balanced in my own personal history by northern Yankees and Danish immigrants in my other family line.

So, I am accepting this pause and this effort for the purpose of getting to the heart of the story of my own journey to know from whom and from where my own origins began.

St Anne’s in Maryland

Some charitable organizations endure. When I saw this article, I thought of Porter-Leath in Memphis but the outcome for my grandmother (losing her infant, for which she was only seeking temporary care until she could get on her feet) was not so good.

St. Anne’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville Maryland has existed for 160 years. They were originally an orphanage and a maternity hospital.  The organization founded during a crisis has reinvented itself time and again since.  The same could be said for Porter Leath as well.

The organization was created in 1860 to serve women and children during the Civil War and it continued to do so through the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression and now, a new pandemic.

Over the years, it has changed its name and purpose. It went from “asylum” to an “orphanage” to a “center” that now houses mothers and children, sometimes for years, if that’s what they need to successfully escape homelessness.

In recent times, they have seen incredible successes like they had not seen before in terms of families leaving them and going into permanent housing. It’s nothing short of incredible how these families are doing that.

When a single mother with a young child comes to St. Anne’s, she and her daughter are given a furnished apartment complete with a bookshelf filled with children’s books. They share a kitchen, laundry room and playground with other families, but otherwise have their own space.

One such mother said –

“I used to say, ‘I don’t want her to remember any of this stuff,’ ” she says of her daughter. “Now, I want her to see where we were, and how we are in a much more amazing place. I want her to see, ‘My mommy did it, my mommy figured it out, she took care of what we had to take care of.’ ”

When they move into their new house, she says, she wants her daughter to know that from these hard times, her mom created something better for them.