A dispute over “Beloved” in the Virginia governor’s race is making Toni Morrison’s book a best seller

Glenn Youngkin speaks with a microphone in front of a blue sign that says "Youngkin for Governor."
Glenn Youngkin speaks with a microphone in front of a blue sign that says "Youngkin for Governor."

The Virginia governor’s race waded into US culture wars this week when Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin seemed to take aim at Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved.

On Oct. 25 Youngkin released an ad featuring a supporter named Laura Murphy, who tried to ban Beloved from her son’s school in a northwest suburb of Virginia in 2013, and later lobbied state lawmakers to pass a bill allowing parents to “opt out” their children from reading sexually explicit content in schools. Youngkin’s challenger, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, later vetoed the bill when he was serving a term as governor.

“It gave parents a say—the option to choose an alternative for my children,” Murphy said of the bill in Youngkin’s ad. “But then Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it twice.” Murphy previously claimed that Beloved, which tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman who is haunted by the daughter she killed to protect her from slavery, had given her son nightmares when he was assigned to read it for an advanced placement literature course in high school.

Even though Murphy didn’t explicitly mention Beloved in the ad, it quickly drew backlash from the Democratic campaign, which distributed copies of Morrison’s books at a rally on Oct. 26. US president Joe Biden, campaigning for McAuliffe, said Youngkin was focused on “banning books by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.”

The political back-and-forth seems to have given a sales boost to works by the celebrated writer, who died in 2019. Brandon Jarvis, a reporter with Virginia Scope, noted Beloved was number six on Amazon’s movers and shakers list by Oct. 27, representing books with the biggest sales gains over the past 24 hours. The book is number 43 on Amazon’s bestselling books list today (Oct. 28). It’s also ranked as number 2 in Black and African American literature, as well as contemporary literature and fiction.

How “Beloved” fits into a national debate over race and education

Youngkin raised the bill McAuliffe vetoed at a Sept. 28 debate, saying, “you believe school systems should tell children what to do. I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” Disagreement over who should be in charge of what children are taught continues to roil Virginia schools and has been a point of contention in the governor’s race. In September, Fairfax County Public Schools removed two books from high school libraries dealing with LGBTQ themes after parents complained of scenes and imagery they believed were too sexually explicit for their children.

McAuliffe characterized Youngkin’s ad as an attempt to silence an esteemed Black author, calling it “a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party.”

Toni Morrison frequently tops lists as one of the most challenged authors in the US, with titles like The Bluest Eye and Beloved receiving pushback for what opponents deem as sexually explicit and violent content. But as was the case with this week’s sales boost, such attempts often only serve to remind readers of why her literature is so affecting. In the 2019 documentary The Pieces I Am, Morrison spoke about receiving a letter from the Texas Bureau of Corrections informing her that the novel Paradise had been banned because it might incite a riot.

“I thought, how powerful is that?” she said. “I could tear up the whole place!”

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