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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