Image from New York City Public Library Digital Archives.

Beloved In Virginia: Can't Nothing Heal Without Pain

In "a nightmare of ascendant ignorance," also egregious fear-mongering and race-baiting, the Virginia governor's race largely hinges on GOP hysteria about demonic Democrats teaching children white people are evil and slavery was bad through CRT that isn't taught in any of their schools. Thus, Youngkin's wrenching ad about a mom whose son, a high-school senior, got upset reading the Pulitzer-winning "Beloved"; she "lived through it," but it was just like the "pull of the chain" and "iron circle around your neck" Morrison recounts in her potent bid to "teach us about a past we have to face."

In "a nightmare of ascendant ignorance" paired with egregious fear-mongering and race-baiting, Tuesday's Virginia governor's race has somehow come to hinge largely on the current GOP hysteria about demonic Democrats teaching children - already oppressed by face masks so they can't really breathe and what else will socialists do to them? - that white people are evil and slavery was bad and history isn't always what you want it to be. That heinous indoctrination is forced on them, of course, through Critical Race Theory, which GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin, aka Trumpkin, says has "moved into all our schools in Virginia," though it actually isn't taught in any of them, but still. A "private equity baron with bottomless pockets" despite a dubious business past, Youngkin has long included in his right-wing talking points - no masks, mandates, abortions, icky gay marriage, lots of God - the imaginary threat of CRT, charging it's "teaching kids to feel guilty because they're white" and pledging, "On day one, I will ban (it) in our schools," which, again, isn't taught there. His Dem opponent, Terry McAuliffe, has noted that fact, charging Youngkin's using CRT as "a racist dog-whistle." It turns out that kind of slime works pretty well in the birthplace of American slavery - the state that hosted Nazis in Charlottesville, just took down Robert E. Lee's statue, responded to the 1956 SCOTUS decision banning school segregation by declaring, with Confederate flags flying, a Massive Resistance that shut down public schools for two years and gave rise to all-white "Christian" academies in their stead, and sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act, denounced as "a special act of inhumanity and tyranny." So here we are: The race in once-reliably blue Virginia is now deemed too close to call.

Despite the idiocy of Youngkin's gross distortion of CRT - which, one more time, isn't taught - his use of schools as battlegrounds to "wage a culture war over race, gender and states' rights" has been dishearteningly effective. Thus, after arguing "parents should be in charge of their kids' education" and accusingly telling McAuliffe "You believe school systems should tell children what to do - a less-than-deadly-crime - he unveiled his schmaltzy, over-the-top ad. It features an earnest, hand-wringing, blonde-and-blue-eyed "Fairfax County Mother," Laura Murphy, backed by mournful piano music, smiling family pics and glowing fireplace all ready to throw books into it - mostly, it turns out, Toni Morrison's 1987 Pulitzer-Prize winning "Beloved," which goes unnamed. "What's it like to have Terry McAuliffe block you from having a say in your child's education?" he asks. "This mom knows - she lived through it. Watch her powerful story." Said story begins with mom recalling, "When my son showed me his reading material, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine." After her fragile son Blake, a high school senior reading "Beloved" for his A.P. English class, complained of "night terrors" from the book, she met with lawmakers, who "couldn't believe what I was showing them" and whose "faces turned bright red with embarrassment" - which, it was noted, a. should disqualify them for public office, also adulthood and b. reveals how many black lawmakers Virginia has. Murphy, it seems, is a right-wing GOP activist who in 2016 lobbied them to allow students to be exempt from class over sexually explicit material in what became known as "the Beloved bill" - which then-Gov. McAuliffe vetoed. Murphy's husband Daniel is a D.C. lobbyist and big contributor to the GOP. Little Blake served as a Trump White House aide and is now an attorney for the GOP, but he evidently hasn't grown up much: Even today, he says "Beloved" was "disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it."

Given their disquiet about the brutal facts of history, slavery and sexual abuse in one of the greatest books of the 20th century, writes Leonard Pitts, "'Beloved' is the least of this white mom's problems," ditto her snowflake of an aspiring fascist son. Yes, "Beloved" is a tough, graphic read - like a thousand other great books - as harrowing as its subject, that seeks to "teach us about a past we have to face." Morrison investigates the obscenites of slavery, the psychic havoc it wreaks, the enduring trauma it inflicts, human beings "feeling the confused pull of the chain" and "an iron circle around your neck," who "got more yesterday than anybody (and) need some kind of tomorrow," who, even if they escape, remain tormented by "the chaos of the needy dead." She tells the story of Sethe, a slave who escapes to free Ohio but years later is still haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless; her tombstone reads simply, "Beloved." To find peace, Sethe learns she must confront her anguished past: "Can't nothing heal without pain. I am Beloved, and she is mine." It's based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave and daughter of her owner whose brother repeatedly raped her, who in 1856 escaped from her Kentucky plantation to a safe house in Ohio. Surrounded by slave catchers, she slit the throat of her 2-year-old daughter - and tried to kill 2 of her other children - rather than return them to slavery to be "murdered piecemeal." Writes Morrison of Sethe, "It was the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it." Those in power were confounded by Garner's case: If they charged her with murder, it meant the child was a full human. They opted for destruction of property, and sold Garner back into slavery in Louisiana, where she died of typhus. Sethe: "The best thing she was was her children. Sad as it was she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like."

"Beloved" regularly appears on right-wing lists of books that should be banned for their truth-telling, and Morrison often spoke about censorship. In her 1993 Nobel Lecture after becoming the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature, she told a story about an old black woman "worried about how the language she dreams in (is) handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes." Oppressive language, she said, "is violence...It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism." For Dana Williams, professor of African-American Literature at Howard and head of the Toni Morrison Society, the dragging of CRT and "Beloved" into GOP politics in Virgina is "an incredible metaphor (for) the moment that we find ourselves in," from issues of racism and brutality to parental choice and abuse by those in power. Morrison is writing about the haunting of a child who tells characters trying to move away from enslavement, "No, you don't get to forget the past completely - if you don't confront it, it contines to haunt us." For now, Youngkin and the GOP remain hard at work trying to forget - to lie, gaslight and whitewash their way to power. In his last ad, Youngkin feverishly trumpeted "a newly unearthed document" as proof McAuliffe "actively pushed" CRT - aka making kids learn the actual, savage history of this country - even as the author of the document dismissed the claim as "twisting it around" into "a conversation that never happened, completely divorced from reality." The current reality in Virginia: McAuliffe's campaign has been giving out copies of "Beloved" at rallies, sales of Morrison's masterpiece are up, if Virginians are appalled by their history they probably should be, and slavery is still bad.

"She did not tell them to clean up their lives, or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek, or its glory-bound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have is the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they could not have it." - "Beloved"


Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.