Ghada Alatrash is an assistant professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts and holds a PhD in Educational Research from the University of Calgary.
During the recent Virginia gubernatorial race, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved became a lightning-rod issue. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, the eventual winner, released an ad featuring parent Laura Murphy, who tried to have the book removed from her son’s AP English curriculum. “When my son showed me his reading assignment [Beloved], my heart sunk,” Ms. Murphy said. “It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.”
Beloved is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that is loosely based on the life and legal case of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African-American woman in the mid-1800s who killed her own daughter to prevent her from also becoming a slave.
Ms. Murphy’s campaign raises the question: What is in Ms. Morrison’s Beloved that could cause such a wave of panic that some parents are frantically fighting to ban it? In particular, who is being threatened by this work and is made to feel so very uncomfortable?
I come from Syria, a country that is run by a ruthless dictatorship who will unapologetically asphyxiate voices and ideas. There, it is the norm for books to be banned and censored, but for this to happen in a democracy like the U.S. is indeed a shockingly disappointing reality. More specifically, it is baffling to witness yet another attempt to erase the crimes of slavery from the American conscience and to wipe away the shameful stain from collective memory.
Indeed, this parent is right about the “explicit” horrifying realities exposed in Ms. Morrison’s work – which, when excavated, undoubtedly flog every human heart that reads them. But I ask that parent: What options do we have? Do we only teach the good and forget about the bad?
There is a great danger that lies in this call to ban a book – to tamper with historical knowledge, and teach our children a more sterile version of history (not to mention a whitened one). How is this not also an “explicit” call for historical amnesia?
“In the context of the West, the experience of racism can be a painful site of spiritual injury … a place, a memory of suffering,” notes Marlon Simmons, an associate professor of education at the University of Calgary. “Yet many have sought to deal with these violent occasions through silence, for historically silence has been a way of life for racially oppressed bodies.”
As losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe argued, parents should not have control over school curriculum. It’s important to remember that violent video games, rampant bullying and gun culture are not the subjects of concern here, but rather an award-winning book.
During the summer, prior to this recent furor, Republican-backed bills banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the school curriculums of several American states, including Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina. This month, Alabama was added to the list.
I guess I would be out of a job in these states, because I happen to teach CRT as a university course, which is a multidisciplinary approach that combines social activism with a critique of the fundamental role played by racism in shaping contemporary societies. As explained by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneering scholar in the field, CRT “is a way of looking at race; a way of looking at why after so many decades – centuries, actually – since the emancipation, we have patterns of inequality that are enduring.”
It is books like Ms. Morrison’s Beloved that help us draw from, and unpack, the experiential knowledge of the Black lived realities that were severely and painfully affected by racism – and continue to be until today. To deny this is to dismiss the present reality of the killing of Black people across the U.S. and Canada, where George Floyd’s 2020 murder is but one example of the continuation of systematic criminalization of and disregard for Black life.
To ban a book is to mute a language. How can we talk about history, slavery, injustice – and about America’s reality, shaped by race and racism – without a language that names these issues, and books that tell the stories that must never be forgotten?
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