Free Speech

How Removing Toni Morrison's Beloved From Curriculum Helped Glenn Youngkin Win in Virginia

Virginia lawmakers passed a bill allowing parents to opt out of certain lessons, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.


Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize–winning 1987 novel, Beloved, is a ghost story that forces readers to confront America's legacy of slavery—of racism, subjugation, and murder—and consider how it still haunts us today. One Virginia mother's quixotic bid to remove the book from her school district's Advanced Placement English curriculum indirectly led to the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Education's move to the forefront of modern culture war politics has a great deal to do with Beloved.

Morrison drew inspiration from the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved black woman who fled her plantation in 1856. When slave catchers caught her, she killed her own daughter rather than see the child returned to a life of slavery. She tried—but failed—to kill herself and her other children as well.

Beloved takes place in 1873; the main character, Sethe, is a former slave. Much like the real-life Garner, Sethe killed a daughter to prevent her recapture. Following emancipation, she lives in a haunted house with her guilt and her surviving children, who fear her. One day, a mysterious young woman named Beloved arrives at the house. Sethe comes to believe that Beloved is the ghost of her dead daughter.

The explicit passages—which include depictions of violence, sex, and bestiality—have made the novel a frequent target for social conservatives. In 2006 and again in 2012, it was one of the 10 most frequently challenged books in schools and libraries, according to the American Library Association.

Starting in 2012, a Virginia woman named Laura Murphy petitioned the Fairfax County School Board to either remove Beloved from the AP English curriculum or at least require parental approval before students can read it, as if it were an R-rated film. That effort failed, but parents were able to persuade state legislators to approve the "Beloved bill," which would have created an opt-out for families that objected to specific books without excising the books from everyone else's curriculum. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, vetoed the bill.

This became a significant issue during McAuliffe's 2021 campaign against Youngkin. McAuliffe incorrectly described the vetoed bill as having given parents the power to remove books from school library shelves; Youngkin hammered McAuliffe for wanting to limit parental input. McAuliffe seemed to damn the very idea of parental input, declaring: "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach." McAuliffe's eventual loss was widely attributed to this gaffe, and Republicans found a potent issue in culture war politics.