You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review Lookback: Beloved

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! News Roundup

Japanese town puts up a replica of Michelangelo’s “David,” residents demand pants.

Remember that guy who got Americans and Congress all worked up over comic books back in the 1950s? Turns out his “research” was bogus.

Yakima, Washington area teacher calls for the removal of two books from Prosser School District libraries. One address child abuse; the other “promotes homosexuality” by including a child character who lives with a same-sex couple. School board considers the challenge, votes to keep the first of two. Then votes to keep the second. Let’s hear it for the Prosser School District and the freedom to read!

Another library board stands up to a book challenge, votes to keep Susane Colastani’s When It Happens in its teen section.

In settlement, Utah school promises to give up long-standing habit of removing library books for “advocacy of homosexuality.”

Soon to be a movie, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima has been challenged for “glorifying witchcraft and death,” being “full of sex and cursing,” “too violent,” and “anti-Catholic,” burned in New Mexico, and most recently removed and banned from schools in Tucson, Arizona. Hmm … sounds like one I need to read & review!

Fairfax, Virginia parent: Toni Morrison gave my son nightmares; therefore, no one should be allowed to read Beloved.

“If these overprotective parents are so concerned with the mental frailty of not just their children but everyone else’s, then I better not hear them complain when their sons are 40 years old and screaming upstairs from their little cave in the basement for more meatloaf.” Excellent Banned Books Awareness essay on censorship, partly inspired by the above challenge to Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Well, it just happens that I read & reviewed Beloved a couple of years ago …

YCRT! Book Review

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a difficult read. Difficult, at first, for mundane reasons. Names you don’t know how to pronounce (Sethe, Halle). Irritating, non-standard diction (whitepeople, blackpeople). A narrative structure that jumps without transition from character to character, time to time, location to location, leaving you to catch up as best you can. A general lack of clarity, for the first few chapters, on who the characters are and how they are related to one another.

Tempted to put the book aside, I pressed on. They didn’t give Ms. Morrison a Pulitzer and a Nobel for nothing, after all.

And suddenly, halfway through, it all began to make sense. Beloved is a ghost story. And the character of Beloved, the infant daughter Sethe murdered to keep her from falling into the hands of Schoolteacher, Sethe’s former owner, is only the proximate ghost. The real ghost of Toni Morrison’s novel is the history of slavery in America. It’s a gripping ghost story. It’s also a shocking, disturbing look at the horrific part of our history we try to forget.

Beloved, of course, has been subjected to challenge after challenge, mainly from parents’ groups trying to have the book removed from high school libraries and reading lists:

Challenged at the St. Johns County Schools in St. Augustine, Fla. (1995). Retained on the Round Rock, Texas Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent. Challenged by a member of the Madawaska, Maine School Committee (1997) because of the book’s language. The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been required reading for the advanced placement English class for six years. Challenged in the Sarasota County, Fla. schools (1998) because of sexual material. Source: 2007 Banned Books Resource Guide by Robert P. Doyle.

Beloved contains incest, rape, pedophilia, graphic sex, extreme violence, sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse, infanticide, and an extensive amount of profanity. The first two chapters contain five references to sex with cows in addition to other types of sex.  Source: Citizens for Literary Stardards in Schools

They cite violence and sex, but I suspect the real reason behind continuing challenges to Beloved is that it confronts us with our sins.

When authorities banned Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they weren’t shy about saying why: the book not only espoused abolition, it made whites look bad. When parents’ groups challenged The Color Purple and  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, white and black parents were equally frank about disliking the authors’ negative depictions of their races. With Beloved, however, book banners tend to hide behind the novel’s scenes of sex and violence.

Americans never set up a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission on slavery. We don’t want to hear the truth about slavery, we don’t want to reconcile with our shameful past. Toni Morrison forces us to confront those aspects of slavery none of us, white or black, want to face: the brutality, the rapes, the taking of children, the impossibility of marriage and family life, the killing of slaves for sport, the feelings of utter helplessness experienced by escaped slaves even decades after they’d gained their freedom, the impossibility of trust or reconciliation between the races.

And that is the true difficulty this novel presents to readers: the mirror it holds up to our own nature. This novel will disturb you. It is a necessary novel. It is a brilliant novel.

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