Toni Morrison, “Beloved”

Set in Ohio after the American Civil War, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African-American woman who killed her child to spare them a life of slavery. The story of Beloved commences with the hauntings of House 124: the home of Sethe, her daughter Denver, and a spiteful spirit, believed to be Sethe’s dead child. When Sethe believes the spirit in human form appears at 124, she not only invites this person into her home, but painful memories as well. Beloved is a novel that explores the topics of motherhood, violence, slavery, and the difficulties of moving forward when you are haunted by the past. In 1998, Beloved was adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey, Donald Glover, and Thandie Newton.

For years, Beloved has been among the list of “Top Ten Most Challenged Books” for the American Library Association. Here are a few examples of recent challenges, both successful and unsuccessful:

  • In 2007, two Kentucky parents raised concern to the Eastern High School school board about violence within Beloved. Beloved was taken off the reading list for AP English Literature the following year, replaced with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
  • In 2012, public hearings were held in Missouri’s Plymouth Canton School District to discuss whether a list of books, including Beloved, should be banned from AP English Literature classes. When two parents, Matt and Barb Dame, complained about the content of the book, the superintendent of the district ordered that it be removed from all English curriculums. At the public hearing, the couple claimed that the novel “contained violence… and sex acts that provide no historical context”. Barb Dame also argued the book was at a “fifth-grade reading level”, according to the Lexile complexity of language score. Many students who came to the public hearing were “offended” at the idea of banning the book, claiming “African American history is not pretty… But it’s education.” The school district decided against the ban, and declared that the novel could stay in the high school English curriculum.
  • In 2016, Richard H. Black, a Republican member of the Virginia State Senate, challenged Beloved. He claimed the novel was “moral sewage” and was too violent to be taught in AP English courses. Sen. Black voted for a bill where K-12 teachers would be required to notify parents when sexually explicit content was present in books. As Virginia schools have a “similar procedure that allows parents to withdraw children from sex-education class,” Sen. Blac argued that parents should decide if their children should opt-out of reading books in the same manner. This bill was passed in February 2016, making it the first state to give parents the right to withdraw their children from reading novels.

About the Author

Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio, is a prolific author of African-American literature. She published eleven books, notably The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. Morrison studied at Howard University and Cornell before she began a career as an editor. At Random House, she helped discover and promote many now prominent African-American authors, such as Gayl Jones and Angela Davis. She wrote and published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, while working at Random House. Her work has earned her prestigious awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, and many honorary doctorates. Morrison died in 2019, but left a great legacy of novels behind her.

Further Reading