When Toni Morrison’s Beloved was published, in 1987, Margaret Atwood, writing in the New York Times Book Review called it a “triumph.” She wrote of the novel, which has come to be considered one of the most important of the contemporary era, “[Morrison’s prose is] by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” A few weeks ago, writing in an email to an AP English teacher who is one of his constituents, Virginia State Senator Richard Black called Beloved “moral sewage.”
Black’s scathing review of the Pulitzer-winning novel came in response to an email from Jessica Berg, an AP literature and language teacher at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Va. In February, Berg contacted him and every other state senator to urge them not to pass HB 516, a then-pending piece of Virginia legislation that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of reading certain books in school.
Berg’s letter to legislators expressed her dismay over the censorship of ideas, and also celebrated Beloved, a book which she has taught in her literature classes. Lawmakers who supported HB 516 had read aloud several particularly violent passages from the novel on the legislative floor, and Berg felt that this cherry-picking misrepresented Morrison’s work.
Black sent a lengthy response which insinuated that even adult lawmakers are not mature enough to handle the book that The New York Times called the “best work of American fiction of the past 25 Years.” The email, which Berg provided to Gawker this week, bears reproducing in full. (Emphasis ours.)
Dear Ms. Berg:
Thank you for taking time to contact me regarding the bill requiring schools notify parents about explicit material, such as the book “Beloved,” prior to assigning it to students. My office received over 9,000 emails during the 60-day session so although we were not able to reply to your message right away, I had the benefit of your message as I weighed this issue.
I was surprised by your personal advocacy of the book “Beloved.” That book is so vile - - so profoundly filthy - - that when a Senator rose on the Senate Floor and began reading a single passage, several other Senators leapt to their feet to interrupt the reading. Susan Schaar, the Senate Clerk, quickly had embarrassed Senate Officials rush the teenage Senate Pages from the Senate Floor in order to protect them from exposure to this moral sewage.
When the Senate adjourned, Ms. Schaar confronted the Senator who dared to read passage publicly; she was visibly shaken as she angrily chastised him for exposing the Pages to the disgusting material that you so effusively praise in your message to me. She was horrified by the passage which described an old man fantasizing about raping a prepubescent girl and leaving her in a pool of blood.
I suggest that you stand before the School Board in public session and read passages selected for you by Senator Carrico, who sponsored this bill, to the adults in the room. Parents trust you with their children and have a reasonable expectation that their children would not be exposed to such explicit materials without being notified. I supported this bill and will continue to work for a parent’s right to know when their child is going to be exposed to such vile materials by their teacher.
Richard H. Black
Senator of Virginia, 13th District
Read the entire email exchange here:
Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature took up the cause of HB 516 despite opposition from local educators after an outraged mother complained that her son had been assigned to read Beloved in an AP literature class (not Berg’s). Had the bill passed, it would have required public school teachers to send permission slips to parents whenever students are assigned learning materials that could be considered “sexually explicit.” If the parents did not approve of the material, the teacher would have to provide alternate coursework. HB 516 passed both legislative houses with wide support but was vetoed Monday by Democratic Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Beloved, which regularly appears on lists of the 20th century’s greatest novels,
tells the story of Sethe, a black woman who elects to kill her young daughter rather than see her enter a life of slavery. In 1987, writing in The New York Review of Books, the critic Thomas R. Edwards wrote,
“Beloved is unlike anything Morrison has done before. Where her previous novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby—dealt with the experience of black people, especially black women, in modern America, this one goes back into history, and behind history into the materials of myth and fantasy that sober history usually thinks it is duty-bound to rationalize or debunk or ignore.”
State Senator Black is not black, and also has not been awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, but he is concerned with, among other things, the novel’s 12 references to the human “penis/vagina/inside part.” Chris Lore, a representative of Black’s office, said the state senator stands by his statements in the emails, and sent Gawker three documents which he said were compiled by HB 516's sponsor to show the kind of material from which the legislation was designed to protect students. “However,” he wrote, “I warn you that it may be offensive.”
The documents provided by Black’s office also contained excerpts from the SparkNotes and CliffsNotes for books such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which were intended to show that the “objectionable concepts were not just isolated passages,” but “contributed to the overall theme or plot of the story.” (They perhaps unintentionally showed that Virginia state senators have been really stressed lately, what with track practice and the SAT II’s coming up, so maybe they didn’t read the whole book, but come on, give them a break.)
Black’s office did not respond to questions about whether Black himself has read Beloved, or whether he would share with Gawker a list of his favorite books.
Berg, in contrast, has read the novel, and counts it among her favorites, though she says she would be equally concerned to see any other book inspiring this sort of legislation. She has regularly given her students an assignment about banned books, since before the proposal of HB 516. “I’m so against the censorship of any kind of literature,” she told Gawker. “How are you going to deny students an opportunity to read a Pulitzer-winning book, by a Nobel-winning author, who was recently given the Medal of Freedom by the U.S. president? It’s astounding.”
After receiving Black’s first response, Berg wrote a second email, and Black responded to that one as well. “I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students,” he wrote.
I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students. Slavery was a terrible stain on this nation but to teach it does not mean you have to expose children to smut. The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents.
Richard H. Black
Senator of Virginia, 13th District
Luckily for Berg and for the public school students of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe declined to sign HB 516 into law. In a statement about the decision, the governor said that local school boards were better suited than state legislators to determine what is and isn’t appropriate for students, and that the bill “lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context.” Like Berg, state Democrats were worried that the bill would create a “backdoor to censorship,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
With the current debate about campus culture so centered on lefty political correctness and trigger warnings, the story of HB 516 is a useful reminder the opinions of stodgy old conservative lawmakers on art and expression are even worse than those of woke sociology majors, and the lawmakers are far more powerful. Campus protests about sushi are good theater, but their power to meaningfully stifle the openness of academic institutions pales in comparison to that of Richard Black and his colleagues, none of whom, unlike Morrison, hold lifetime achievement awards from the National Book Critics Circle.