Protecting White Kids From History

By Guest Contributor Tope Fadiran Charlton; originally published at Are Women Human?

Content Notes: racist violence, slavery, infanticide, Japanese internment.

So, this is a thing: a white parent has spent 6 months trying to get the Fairfax County,Virginia school system to ban Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from its schools. Why? She feels its content isn’t suitable for children – where “children” here means older teenagers in an Advanced Placement class intended to provide college-level instruction – and is upset that reading the book gave her then 18 year old son nightmares.

Laura Murphy, the book-banning mom in question, has apparently also tried to get Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, a novel about the Canadian government’s internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, removed from the county curriculum. I have no idea what her objection to Obasan is, but there appears to be a pattern here, and it looks an awful lot like whiteness.

There’s so much one could say about this.

Firstly: Yes, Beloved is a deeply disturbing book, no doubt about that. It’s the story of a mother who would rather kill her children than be forced to have them grow up as slaves. Morrison doesn’t spare feelings or constitutions in her descriptions of all kinds of horrific violence.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton in "Beloved."

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton inBeloved. Still from The Ascension Blog

I’ve read a good portion of Beloved, but have never finished it, because I was strongly advised that it wasn’t a book I wanted to read while I was pregnant (I believe my friend’s exact words were “STOP READING IT RIGHT NOW”). So, I get it. It’s an unsettling read.

It’s a bit sad that this needs saying, but many books that are worth reading can be profoundly unsettling and scary, even traumatic to read. And this is in part because many unsettling, scary, traumatic things are part of the human experience.

It’s hard for me to imagine there aren’t several books on Fairfax County’s AP English curriculum that are potentially as disturbing as Beloved or Obasan. Say, for example, Lord of the Flies, which gave me nightmares when I read it in 10th grade. Kids going feral after being stranded on a desert island and hunting and killing each other is pretty nightmarish stuff, no? Or how about Hamlet? Dude pretty much slaughters everyone at the end [eta: hyperbole alert :-p]. Let’s ban, that, too.

But no, those books are part of the awfully white male “Western canon,” and not so vulnerable to these sorts of crusades. Their literary merit is established, so the violent and disturbing aspects are more easily taken for granted.  Despite Murphy’s claim that her objection to Beloved is purely about protecting kids and has nothing to do with her assessment of its literary merit, it’s quite obvious that her concerns about literary violence don’t apply equally to all books or all authors.

Two of the books Murphy has objected to are by women of color. Both of them are also about the history of white supremacist violence in North America. These things don’t seem like a coincidence.

Murphy says she’s no book-burner and that she has no problem with teens learning about “mature” topics like the Holocaust and slavery. But the content of Obasan and Beloved – which includes graphic depictions of violence and some mentions of bestiality – are apparently a bridge too far. One has to wonder exactly what Murphy thinks happened during the Holocaust and under American slavery, or if she realizes that children were victims of both.

Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner. It’s an unflinching look at a legacy of incredible violence and trauma that many Americans – especially many white Americans – would much rather not think about.

You think a novel about an institution so violent and depraved that a woman would rather kill her children than be forced to hand them over is the stuff of nightmares? Imagine the waking nightmare Margaret Garner lived, faced with the awful “choice” of murdering her own kids or watching them be returned to slavery. And she was just one person out of millions. Any honest account of this history should disturb and unsettle us.

Of course, imagining that nightmare is precisely what Murphy is insisting that her kids shouldn’t have to do. The question is, does the math add up on a claim that one white kid’s bad dreams outweigh the value thousands of students get out of confronting a history we’re all still living with the ramifications of? Including many students who are bound to be the descendants of slave owners or slaves – in some cases, both?

Murphy justifies keeping students from grappling with this history in the name of “[making] sure every kid in the county is protected.” In this reckoning, 17 and 18 year olds need protection from a few lost nights of sleep, from realizing that people are capable of doing truly awful things, from the knowledge that some people live with horrific, daily, inescapable violence.

Here’s another question: which 17 and 18 year olds need protection from this? Many teenagers know these things already. Some because it’s an unavoidable part of their history. So many others know these things from direct experience. To be able to assume a blanket right to protection that can be exercised simply by keeping scary books out of kids’ hands is the product of an amazing level of privilege and disconnectedness from reality.

As Prof. David Leonard says, the argument from a white parent living in an affluent suburb that “children” as an undifferentiated class need to be protected from merely reading about such things “speaks to sense of entitlement and notion of whose innocence, security, and personal joy deserves attention [and] protection.”

This is a roundabout sort of white supremacy that coopts the language of keeping kids safe to say that the experiences people of color actually lived are too volatile even read about. And let’s be clear, it’s not simply the fact that these are stories about people of color that is at issue. It’s the fact that these are also histories of white people, and histories that are fundamentally incompatible with mythologies of whiteness, particularly the myth of whiteness as innocence.

A history where people of color are the innocent victims of white violence is an offense to white supremacy. So demands are made for preserving the “innocence” of white kids, something that requires denying the innocence of communities of color subjected to white violence and colonialism. White students must be shielded from the trauma of confronting the violent acts and legacy of people who looked like them – perhaps even people they are descended from.

The good news is the Fairfax County School Board apparently sees Murphy’s request for what it is: not simply an attempt to “be a responsible parent,” as she says, but a demand that schools provide a a sanitized educational environment tailored for preserving the emotional comfort of white students at everyone else’s expense.

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  • Neville Ross

    Sounds like the same reason Disney prevented the Studio Ghibli movie Only Yesterday from being released by them, due to the mention of the main character’s having her period-apparently, parents like Murphy are afraid that learning about certain things ‘before they’re ready’ will mess them up and they won’t be the same. Why do people like this bother to even have children?

  • Nona BRAY

    This women is trying to hide the truth, about what hell the slaves lived in and that can not can not happen! We can not let it,

  • Foxessa

    This appears part of the movement in which Arizona school administration and their minions as much as Texas, have been in the forefront: removing from the curriculum anything that celebrates or reveals to their native american and hispanic heritage students their culture, their history and their language. If it doesn’t celebrate white U.S. exceptionalism and triumphalist perspectives it is not classified as legitimate history. This is not only in the k – 12 classes, but in the colleges and universities also, targeting Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, African American Studies and so on.

  • Oddjob1789

    “The good news is the Fairfax County School Board apparently sees Murphy’s request for what it is”..

    …which is exactly why is this not the most relavent of articles. This is the story of one suburban mother who I would likely not be friendly with. It’s not necessarily representative of some endemic problem in our society

    • Miles_Ellison

      A suburban mother in a state whose Governor instituted Confederate History Month is trying to keep a book about the brutality of slavery out of its schools. That’s about as relevant as it gets. It’s also a sterling example of the problem that our society has with coming to terms with its racist history.

  • Grace

    Thanks for these points re: class and religion. Fairfax County is one of the wealthiest in the country, so there’s no question class is a factor here.

  • Tusconian

    She needs to protect her, let’s face it, adult son from something that any black or Japanese child would have known since they were *actually* a child? Because he might get scared and have nightmares?

    Yeah, this combined with the whitewashing of many textbooks coming out of Texas (also because they’re afraid of making white kids “uncomfortable” for the duration of one class period), you have to wonder where these kids are actually going to learn these truths, which are, shockingly, uncomfortable, and also imperative in understanding the society they live in. I know people who didn’t learn about the Holocaust until they were 16 years old, and people who’d have fits in college level ethnic studies classes because they’d never heard about racism aside from “slavery happened, then it was over,” and didn’t believe the teachers or textbooks. As a nonwhite person, I have to say, living in a world that is run by people who don’t know or choose not to know these facts is significantly more uncomfortable than learning about slavery, internment camps, and genocide in a way that still very much removes any blame from the white students reading.

  • Kraas

    I need to read this book so I can find out what made someone’s precious snowflake lose sleep. Without having read the book I can’t really comment on it, but I can say that if you’re going to teach kids about racism, it’s inevitable that someone’s going to get uncomfortable, and someone’s toes are going to get stepped on, and so on, and that shouldn’t be a reason not to teach about it. We should never hide from the atrocities in our history, they have to be confronted.

  • Breanne Harris

    Thank you for this piece!
    I have been discussing this fact with white friends for a long time. “Protecting” children from violent history is a luxury that we as POC’s don’t have! Our history is painful and violent and we are made aware of that at a very young age. I remember watching movie’s about slavery with pretty serious violence at as young as 6 and 7 years old because my parents wanted me to have a sense of my history. White allyship starts with knowledge and the younger that knowledge, reality and privilege is pointed out (in developmentally appropriate language) the better.