Hey Fairfax County, High School Seniors Can Handle ‘Beloved,’ And Learn About Racism and Sexism

Laura Murphy, whose son is a senior in high school in Fairfax County, Virginia, doesn’t think he—or anyone else—should be reading Beloved in their English classes, and she’s on a quest to get it bumped from the curriculum. Per Raw Story:

“I’m not some crazy book burner,” Murphy, a mother of four, insisted to the Post. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.”

In spite of the awards and accolades won by Beloved and its author, who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Murphy feels that the book’s theme of the brutality of slavery and scenes depicting gang rape, infant murder and violence are too intense for high school seniors. She said her son had nightmares when he had to read the book for his senior English course.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy. “It’s about the content.” On Thursday, the Fairfax County School Board voted not to hear Murphy’s challenge to the book. She now plans to take her fight to the Virginia Board of Education.

The thing about sending your children to public school is that you’re consenting to give up a certain amount of control over what they’re exposed to, because one of the major points of public schools is to make sure students have a pre-established set of skills and cultural references in common. And that often means teaching children things that their parents don’t know, or giving them access to literature and history that their parents might not have at home, or frankly, might not want them to read or learn about. It also, on an emotional level, means letting your children come into contact with ideas and art that will expand their sense of the world.

An associated risk of that is that they might be upset by some of the things they learn about the world. Racism is frightening. So is sexual assault. But both of those things have happened in the United States, and for many people, continue to be major factors that affect their day-to-day life. And I think high school seniors, especially those who will be going off to colleges where they have much more sexual autonomy, and will be dealing with larger and more diverse peer groups, not only are old enough to understand the reality of those facts and to be confronted with the emotional impacts they have, but really ought to be confronted by them. I’m not a parent yet, but my understanding is that parenting is a balance between protecting children from things they genuinely don’t have the capacity to process—Wu-Tang may be for the children, but I’m not sure Toni Morrison is—and helping them process the difficult things they have the moral and emotional ability to confront, even if that involves hard work on your, and their parts.

If Murphy’s son is having nightmares about slavery and gang rape, that actually seems to suggest that he’s pretty attuned to the emotional horror of racial and sexual violence. Maybe, instead of trying to protect him from those feelings, she could find some way for him to channel them into productive anti-racist or anti-sexist work. That would be much better college prep (and resume-building) for him than trying to save him, and other seniors, from being upset. I doubt Murphy is going to have much luck with the Virginia Board of Education. And she’ll have much less with whatever institution of higher learning he heads off to.

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