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.

Reproductive Rights

The woman on the left is Norma McCorvey, the woman who was Jane Roe in the legal case that came to be known as Roe v Wade and made it possible for women to have an abortion.  I did not know it until this morning, but the pregnancy that caused her to seek an abortion, ended up in adoption.

Norma grew up poor and abused.  She was the daughter of a single alcoholic mother. She got into trouble frequently and at one point was sent to a reform school. She married and became pregnant at 16 but divorced before the child was born; she subsequently relinquished custody of the child to her mother. In 1967, she gave up a second child for adoption immediately after giving birth.

At the age of 22 and unwed, she was mired in addiction and poverty, she was desperate for a way out of an unwanted pregnancy.  It was her third child and she was so desperate to have an abortion, that she made up a story that she was gang raped, thinking that might legally entitle her to one.  To my own perspective, she is the sad example of the trauma a birth mother experiences as Norma repeatedly lost custody of her natural children.

Roe v Wade became law in 1973, just after I graduated from high school.  In the latter part of the 1970s, I benefited from a safe, medically induced and legal abortion.  It has surprised me how many adoptees will say they wish they had been aborted.  That tells you something about how not happy becoming an adoptee can be for many, not all, children as they become mature adults.

Roe v Wade built on earlier decisions legalizing contraception.  The right to plan wanted pregnancies (and in my own experience a wanted child is loved and treated better in general, I say that because all of my children were wanted, and my reasons for having an abortion, while haunting me most of my life, I still believe were the right ones) and the right to end unwanted ones has freed women to pursue more fulfilling lives than the old barefoot and pregnant model of married life.

When women are able to choose when and whether to have children, they are more likely to finish their education, more financially stable and less likely to remain in and endure abusive relationships.  In states that have fewer abortion restrictions, there are lower rates of maternal and infant mortality.

In 1984, Norma McCorvey revealed herself to have been Jane Roe.  This resulted in the ugly side of the Pro-Life movement as she was harassed and someone even shot at her through her window.  Even so, she was undaunted for years and remained an abortion-rights advocate.  However in the 1990s, she announced she was 100% pro-life.  One has to wonder after what she suffered, if she just wanted safety, security and peace.  She died in 2017.

Today in 2020, the right to choose is under a strong attack and given the increasingly conservative nature of our judicial system thanks to the Republican party, young women may once again only have the option of illegal and unsafe access to ending an unwanted pregnancy.  Women could be forced once again to have children against their personal desire to bear a child.