The work of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is at the center of the latest skirmish over education in the Virginia’s governor’s race, after an ad by Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin featured a parent upset that Morrison’s 1987 novel “Beloved” was being taught to her son, a high school senior.
“Beloved,” Morrison’s best-known work, is set in the Reconstruction and vividly portrays the horrors of slavery and its legacy. It contains passages that are violent and sexually explicit. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Virginia Democrats are calling the ad a “racist dog whistle” and accusing Youngkin of wanting to ban books. Youngkin and Republicans argue parents should have the right to have a say in what their children learn, a familiar theme of their closing message centered around education and school boards.
In the ad, Fairfax County mother Laura Murphy goes after McAuliffe for vetoing Virginia House Bill 516, the “Beloved bill” that would have the board of education write a policy that would have required parents to be notified “if material used in class includes sexually explicit content.”
“He doesn’t think parents should have a say — he said that. He shut us out,” said Murphy, who has been fighting to get “Beloved” banned since 2013.
McAuliffe’s veto came up in the last debate in September. Youngkin accused McAuliffe of vetoing the bill, which he characterized as one that “bill that would have informed parents” of the presence of sexually explicit books in the school library.
McAuliffe shot back at Youngkin and said no, “the bill would have given parents the right to veto … books, Glenn, not to be knowledgeable about it — also take them off the shelves — and I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions…. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The 2016 bill, had McAuliffe signed it, would have made Virginia the first school in the nation to allow parents to block their children from reading books containing sexually explicit material in school. At the time, McAuliffe reasoned in a statement issued with the veto that “[b]ecause the Board of Education is already considering this issue in a broader and more complete context, I believe House Bill 516 is unnecessary.”
The House tried to override his veto but came one vote shy. In January 2017, the Virginia Board of Education rejected a proposal to warn parents about “sexually explicit” content in their child’s assigned reading.
A similar bill, Virginia House Bill 2191, would have allowed parents to review the assigned readings and submit alternative readings if desired. That also was vetoed by McAuliffe in 2017.
Youngkin seized on McAuliffe’s remarks in the debate, rebranding his campaign as “parents matter” rallies, and right-wing groups ran ads assailing McAuliffe on the topic. McAuliffe’s campaign aired an ad saying Youngkin took his words “out of context” and he told CBS News he doesn’t regret what he said during the debate.
“You don’t want 25 parents in a class picking 25 different books. We have great boards of [education],” McAuliffe told CBS News White House correspondent Ed O’Keefe in an interview.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a staunch McAuliffe supporter, called Youngkin’s ad a “racist dog whistle” on Tuesday, noting that Morrison is a Black author and that “Beloved” centers around slavery.
“There is a process in place at the local level for these decisions about curricula. My question to Glenn Youngkin is does he want to get involved in each and every one of our school districts around the state and censor what’s being taught?” Stoney said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
In response, Youngkin’s campaign shared a list of Democrats who had voted for the “Beloved bill” in 2013. Former Fairfax County school board member Kay Cole James said the discussion around the “Beloved” bill “is not a racial issue and to me it shows sheer desperation at this point in the campaign to try and paint this this way.”
“We’re not about banning books. But we should have the fundamental right to say, I don’t want my child exposed to this,” added Republican House of Delegates candidate AC Cordoza.
Youngkin campaign spokesperson Matt Wolking said Youngkin would not ban books if elected governor, and wasn’t able to say whether Youngkin had read “Beloved” himself.
When asked about the Democrats who had voted for the “Beloved” bill, Democratic Senator and President pro tempore Louise Lucas said she would “hope that they have learned the lesson over time that these are truly attempts to silence the voices of black authors.”
“It’s more than about Beloved, it’s about every living, breathing, human in America,” Lucas added, referencing the race at large.
A poll released on Tuesday by Suffolk University asked if parents or school boards should “have more of an influence on a school’s curriculum?” It found 50% of overall respondents and 57% of independents said parents should have more of an influence.