To The Teacher:
Toni Morrison is one of America’s most acclaimed writers. She is also one of its most censored. Before her death in 2019, Morrison published 11 novels and received the Nobel Prize for Literature, as well as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Yet multiple school districts around the country have witnessed attempts—both successful and unsuccessful—to ban works by Morrison.
In this lesson, students learn about the life and legacy of Toni Morrison and discuss how her 1987 book Beloved is both frequently taught and frequently subject to calls for censorship. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
Toni Morrison: Celebrated and Censored
Toni Morrison is one of America’s most acclaimed writers. She is also one of its most censored.
Before her death in 2019, Morrison published 11 novels, including The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987), and Paradise (1997). These works, in the words of the New York Times, “explored Black identity in America — and in particular the often crushing experience of Black women — through luminous, incantatory prose resembling that of no other writer in English.”
Among numerous honors, Morrison was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, becoming the first African-American woman to receive this prize. Beyond writing and publishing, she led a successful career as an editor and helped promote many other African-American authors.
Despite this legacy, the American Library Association has regularly included her works on its annual list of most banned and challenged books. In recent decades, multiple school districts around the country have witnessed attempts—both successful and unsuccessful—to ban works by Morrison, in some cases removing her books from English courses. Given this, discussion of Toni Morrison’s work provides an important window into censorship and the role of literature in our society.
On October 28, 2021, Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of African American and African diaspora studies and English literature at Columbia University, published an op-ed in the Washington Post that outlined the censorship battles over Morrison’s books. Among other examples, Griffin noted:
Since the publication of her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” in 1970, Morrison’s books have often come under fire. In 1997, Texas prisons considered “Paradise” too dangerous for their libraries because it might incite “strikes or riots.” …. Last year, a Southern California school board announced the reversal of its decision to remove “The Bluest Eye” from its core reading list for AP English Literature classes.
In the latter incident, parents in San Bernadino, California sought to ban The Bluest Eye, citing the book’s scenes of rape and incest. The protagonist of the story is Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old Black girl who prays for blond hair and blue eyes, traits she believes will make her more beautiful. Writing for the San Bernardino Sun on February 11, 2020, reporter Brian Whitehead outlined the controversy over the book:
“The Bluest Eye,” which had previously been on the district’s reading list, was the only book removed from the catalog of nearly 500 pieces of literature up for approval.
District officials Monday could not recall another time such an action was taken.
“There are dozens of books on the list that deal with controversial issues,” [school board member Dan] Flores said. “Yet, the only one being removed is by Toni Morrison, one of the most prominent Black female authors of recent time. Her literature speaks to the African American experience in America and I could not personally support removing one of her books from our reading list altogether.”
After PEN America, a non-profit organization with a mission to “protect open expression in the United States and worldwide,” wrote a letter to the San Bernardino school board, the ban on The Bluest Eye was lifted, and teachers were allowed to add it back to reading lists.
However, other districts have also targeted the book – including public schools in Virginia Beach, which this fall removed Morrison’s volume from libraries pending a challenge by school board members.
Over the years, the back-and-forth of banning and reinstating of books by Toni Morrison has become a pattern. In 2009, when one of her books was banned in a Michigan school district, Toni Morrison herself spoke out about the incident. As the Guardian reported at the time:
Speaking at an event in New York to launch the National Coalition Against Censorship's new initiative, the Free Speech Leadership Council, the 78-year-old Morrison said that there was an "enormous sacredness" attached to reading in her family.”….
Reading, she said, was essential. "You have to read, you have to know, you have to have access to knowledge." The censorship issue is rooted in fear of information, she believes, dating back to Eve's temptation in the Garden of Eden – the idea that the acquisition of knowledge has dire consequences.….
[Morrison] edited and published Burn This Book, a collection of essays on censorship and the power of words, in which she writes that "a writer's life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity"....
"The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists' questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, cancelled films – that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink," Morrison writes. "Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination."
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- What stands out for you in the reading? Why?
- According to the reading, what were some of the reasons cited for banning Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from the California school district in 2020?
- Toni Morrison spoke out in 2009 about the issue of the material in her books, writing that “only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning.” Is there a place for discussion of trauma and sorrow in the classroom? Have you encountered such themes in novels, and if so, how have you felt about that experience?
- District staffers in San Bernardino who opposed removing The Bluest Eye from school curriculum had suggested that teachers instead work “to establish an optimal [environment] in which students can address controversial and uncomfortable content.” What do you think of this recommendation?
- Recall a time you approached difficult or controversial content in an English course. What practices do you think can help to create an optimal environment for discussing difficult or uncomfortable material in school?
Beloved: A Pulitzer-Winning Book that Some Have Tried to Ban
In the fall of 2021, controversy over Morrison erupted in a political race in Virginia, when a candidate for governor ran a political ad featuring a mother of a student who said he was traumatized after being assigned Morrison’s book Beloved in his high school English class.
Debate over the ad drew Morrison’s work into the public spotlight; however, as we have seen, it was not an isolated incident. Recently, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg described “A Frenzy of Book-Banning,” with books by Morrison prominent among the titles appearing in a spate of local debates about censorship, education, and literary expression.
Likely Morrison’s best-known work, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel is set after the Civil War and tells the story of a mother who kills her infant daughter in order to protect her from the horrors of slavery. Since its publication, the book has been taught in countless schools across the country and is commonly used on AP Literature exams.
In the Virginia case, one parent claimed that her son had nightmares after reading Beloved in a senior year English class, which led her to promote legislation giving parents the right to opt their children out from reading particular books. Likewise, in 2012, Matt and Barb Dame, parents in a Michigan school district, asked that the book be banned from an AP English course in their child’s school; they argued that it contained “gratuitous sex and violence” as well as “repeated instances throughout the novel where God’s name was used in vain.”
Reporting for Michigan Radio in 2012, senior producer Jennifer Guerra interviewed students about their reactions to the potential banning of the book. Guerra writes:
Meredith Yancy, 16, is reading the book in her Advanced Placement English Literature class at Salem High School. She says she didn’t have a problem with the book’s mature content.
"I handled it just fine. Slavery, that’s a really serious issue. And a lot of events in the book are not there to be gratuitous and offensive; they’re there to make a point of how awful those times really were."
Another student, 16-year old Alexis Bentley, says she was "offended" when she heard Beloved might be banned.
"African-American history is not pretty," says Bentley, who is African-American. "It’s not going to be all flowers and daisies; it’s going to be ugly, and there are going to be times where you’re going to be appalled at what’s in the history. But it’s education."
One of the AP English teachers, Brian Read, says he’s taught Beloved for 10 years without any complaint from parents. Read points out that students and parents were given the full AP reading list before the semester began, so they could have voiced their concerns then.
And he says there are always alternative options if a parent doesn’t want a student to read one of the assigned books. "I’ve done that in the past with Huckleberry Finn, with Catcher in the Rye; so there are always options. I think what surprises me is the desire to remove it from access to all students."
Read says the content in Beloved is mature, so he understands why some parents are concerned. But he adds that "most literature we teach has some content that people will disagree with. It’s when we confront those things that we’re really confronted with our own humanity."
In her op-ed for the Washington Post on October 28, 2021, Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin argued that Beloved being drawn into debates about banning books is “less about the comfort of teenage readers and more about parents trying to elide the harsh truths and realities of our nation’s history.” She writes:
Literary history is full of examples of complex, difficult books replete with scenes of sex and violence, often told in controversial, if beautiful, language. The most sophisticated of these works do not sensationalize violence, nor do they insist that readers put themselves in the place of the characters, but instead, they encourage us to bear witness to the suffering of others. For literature to bear witness, it must engage with violence, even as it condemns it. From the Old and New Testaments to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” readers are confronted with powerful narratives that not only tell the stories of oppressed people, but also hold the mirror up to humanity, often showing us parts of ourselves we’d rather not see.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Beloved,” a novel that includes sex, some of it consensual, much of it brutal and abusive. Such abuse constituted the horrific conditions of slavery. Nonetheless, sex in “Beloved” is not overly explicit, as… the earlier campaign against it would have us believe, although it can make for difficult and painful reading. If her novel is “obscene,” that is because the institution of slavery was obscene. The novel is about slavery — including, but not limited to, the sexual abuse that it encouraged and relied upon as a tool of power. Significantly, “Beloved” is also about a mother, Sethe, seeking to protect her child from the horrors of that institution, which includes protecting her from sexual assault. For Sethe, murdering her child is better than having the girl face the terror with which she herself has lived as an enslaved woman.
Morrison’s novel includes material that is disturbing. Whether that is a cause for banning the book from the classroom, or whether it is the role of literature to force us to confront disturbing truths, lies at the heart of current debate.
- What stands out for you in the reading? Why?
- How do the students quoted in the reading respond to objections that Beloved contains sexually explicit material? What did you think of their viewpoints?
- How much influence do you think parents should have in reviewing the material that students access in schools? How much input do you think your parents should have in deciding what books are suitable for your classes? If you were a parent, how much say would you want over the works your child was assigned to read?
- In the reading, Michigan English teacher Brian Read notes that the program in his school allows students alternative options if a parent does not want a student to read an assigned book. Is offering such alternatives a good way of responding to concerns about controversial literature? What might be the pros and cons of this approach?
- Perhaps unexpectedly, sales of Beloved have only increased since the book was in the news during the Virginia governor’s race. What do you think of this development?
Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.