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Banned Books: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Banned Books: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

 

This week is Banned Books Week, and we’re celebrating by showcasing various books which have been censored for a variety of reasons. Celebrate this week by picking up one of these books and reading.

Nobel-prize winning writer Toni Morrison‘s novel Beloved won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. I read it in a day, unable to put down the book with its story of former slaves who’ve escaped in the antebellum South, sensuous writing and compelling characters — that little ghost who left handprints in the cake, the tree on Sethe’s back. A few years later when I was in graduate school, a Yale professor used Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula in a course on trauma, literature and culture and there were long discussions about Morrison’s narratives of the post-traumatic effects of slavery.

Ten years after its publication, Beloved was banned from AP English classes at Eastern High School in Louiseville, Kentucky, because of the book’s mention of bestiality, racism and sex. The Coeur D’Alene School District in Idaho has also challenged the book and required students to have parental permission to read it. People have objected to the novel’s violence, the supernatural and infanticide. Sula has also appeared on lists of banned books.

The objections raised to Morrison’s writings of the physical, psychological and other brutal effects of slavery on her characters’ bodies and psyches is further proof not only of the power of her writing, but of America’s continuing discomfort and unease to confront its history of racism and its aftereffects on our society today. Violence is never gratuitous in Morrison’s writing because — does it need to be said? — violence was part of the historical experience of slaves in this country. Sethe, the central character, had escaped to the home of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, in Ohio, only to be pursued and found by her master. Rather than see herself and her children be reclaimed by him, Sethe attempts to kill her four children. Her oldest daughter dies and becomes the ghost. Her two sons run away when they turn 13 years old and the remaining daughter, Denver, is tied to the house, timid and without friends.

You need look no farther than the classics of Greek and Roman literature to find texts that contain exactly the same material. The fifth century (BC) Greek playwright Euripides’ tragedy Medea is also about a mother in desperate straits who kills her children, as a chilling revenge against her husband, the hero Jason, for abandoning her for another woman. Certainly numerous other worlds of ancient Greek literature contain equally violent and horrifying depictions of violence as well as infanticide (Euripides’ Bacchae, which is even more grisly in many ways than the Medea), incest (Sophocles’ widely-read Oedipus Rex and Euripides’ Hippolytus), suicide (Sophocles’s Ajax). The scatological and bodily humor in Aristophanes’s comedies (a sex strike in the Lysistrata; “befouling” and lewd language aplenty in the Birds, a political satire) never fails to amaze my students, who have been misinformed that the ancients were more “virtuous” than us.

If we’re going to ban Beloved, we’d really have to ban Medea, and all the classical literary works mentioned in the previous paragraph, in a deeply disturbing denial of our literary and cultural heritage — which very much includes all of Morrison’s powerful works.

 

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95 comments

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9:40PM PDT on Sep 6, 2012

Thanks

9:07AM PDT on Oct 16, 2011

How about Shakespeare's works, they are so full of violence as well, should they be banned?

There is ALWAYS a hidden agenda behind banning books. The Occult Gospels is probably the best example of this.

7:55AM PDT on Oct 15, 2011

Book banning is just craziness!!

8:34PM PDT on Oct 7, 2011

I continue to rail against the concept that individually we aren't able to choose , understand and evaluate our own reading material. In the same vein I'm angry to have heard Republican Presidential candidate Mr. Cain repeatedly stating that people of color are"BRAINWASHED" into voting Democratic! Each of us has the pleasure of possessing a mind and it's not only a horrible thing to waste ( as the Association of Negro Colleges used to say ) BUT it's a horrible waste TO NOT BE EXPECTED TO USE IT! I ALWAYS READ banned books--if only to see what the fuss is about. I find it's a great conversation starter to lead with" As I was reading Lady Chatterly's Lover last evening........."

8:53PM PDT on Oct 6, 2011

Joseph B. summed it up for me. I don't think these people who are banning books have ever read the Bible. If they had, we would hope they would be more tolerant. We are doomed to repeat our history if we aren't going to learn from it.

6:35PM PDT on Oct 4, 2011

Banning books is just plain crazy. We have the freedom to choose--I thought
this is perpetrated by ignorant hate filled people

3:40PM PDT on Oct 4, 2011

It is absolutely disgusting that any district would dare censor this novel! I'm speechless with anger! So... let me get this straight: uh, like, let's totally not read ANYTHING that makes us, like, uncomfortable, by reminding us of the brutality we inflicted on black slaves in our country... I mean, like, can't they ever get over it? NO; we can't get over it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

12:22PM PDT on Oct 4, 2011

This movie was amazing, and I am dying to read the book! The sermon in the middle of the book! OMGoodness! It's so beautiful, it always brings tears to my eyes to read or hear it!

This is such a brilliant (but sad) story.

People who ban books, in my opinion, are just ignorant and lack critical thinking skills.

1:02AM PDT on Oct 4, 2011

"Democracy is the right of the poeple to choose their own tyrants."
-James Madison

11:30AM PDT on Oct 3, 2011

Toni Morisson is a national treasure. A truly skilled writer who has taken up the pen to give a voice to a severely underrepresented portion of the American populace. Many of the books that have and will be banned are protested because the adult readers protesting these books want something to be wrong with them. They are robbing America, especially its youth, of the ability and right to read something that challenges their beliefs or world views and forces them to think about the way things were, are, or could be. We cannot solve the world's problems by banning books which address these problems.

More on my blog at www.ontheedgerva.blogspot.com

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