Below is the full email exchange between Virginia State Senator Richard Black and AP English teacher Jessica Berg about the Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved.
Berg’s first email
To Whom It May Concern,
The essence of great literature is conflict, conflict of the human condition and all it encompasses. Great literature presents this conflict for us the readers to engage with, connect to, and learn from. We are supposed to be shaken, made aware, stand in someone else’s shoes, start a dialogue, have our horizons broadened. Great literature kills ignorance and brings the world closer one page at a time. Anyone deeming great literature “poisonous” does not understand literature, so leave it to the teachers that teach this on a daily basis, that understand the importance of it, and know how to convey these ideals to a classroom full of students.
The fact that this bill arose from a parent questioning the merits of Beloved, is appalling. First of all, this novel is taught mainly in AP classes, and this was the course level it was being taught in Fairfax County when the initial problem arose. AP classes are treated like college courses because students can earn college credit, and students are expected to handle the work load and material like mature young adults. Are parents that are raising issue going to demand the same thing from their son or daughter’s college professors the following year?
AP Literature is an English class that is offered to seniors in high school, so students are usually 17 or 18 years old. If parents are concerned that at this age they cannot handle material that is dealt with in a mature manner in class, then they should not let them see rated ‘R’ movies, watch most television programs, Netflix Series, or search the internet for that matter. It is inside their English classes where we take topics and issues that arise for students, and pretty much every human being for that matter, on a daily basis and we discuss them in an academic manner analyzing them through the character’s experiences, and through the different lenses of literary criticism.
Now let’s talk about Beloved. First of all, just reading “excerpts”, as Senator Carrico did, in no way shape or form gives you the right to pass judgment on a novel that won Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and an author that won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is akin to seeing the sexually explicit scene in 12 Years a Slave and deeming it “poisonous”. Secondly, when there are scenes of a sexual nature or context in literature they are never actually about sex. As Thomas C. Foster states in How to Read Literature like a Professor:
“You just know that these scenes mean something more than what’s going on in them. It’s true in life as well, where sex can be pleasure, sacrifice, submission, rebellion, resignation, supplication, domination, enlightenment, the whole works.”
But we as English teachers know this, and that is how we approach these scenes in class. We ask ourselves and our students what the author is trying to convey with this scene because it has a purpose in the whole context of the novel and should not be read as an excerpt. We also know what ages of students can handle these mature discussions. We would not teach Beloved to freshman, but high school seniors, absolutely.
So back to Beloved, the scenes in question, and the only ones certain Senators and parents read, are necessary in understanding Sethe’s motivations and rationale for her actions when she thinks she and her daughter are going to be taken back into slavery. Not being able to discuss this novel, and having students understand the horrors present in our nation’s history, is doing a real disservice to current and future generations.
Being in classrooms with these students that you think are going to be poisoned by these texts shows that you do not really know the demographic you are trying to “protect”. You are not giving them the credit that is due. Students are often more mature than we think, and as teachers we guide them through these novels in a mature manner in an academic setting so that we can discuss them in a fitting manner because that is our job, not yours.
The novels which Ms. Murphy sites, and which you all are so afraid of, are the novels that spark the best discussions. These are the novels that have great conflicts, and great characters, and great lessons. These are the novels that make English teachers want to teach because we want to share the insight we gleaned from them with our students. These are the novels that impact and change the world for the better, and these are the novels anyone in favor of this bill should read again, in their entirety, and then we can have a reasonable discussion on the merit of them in an English classroom in America. I suggest starting with Orwell’s 1984, and until then, leave the classroom decisions to the classroom teacher.
Dear Ms. Berg:
Thank you for taking time to contact me regarding the bill requiring schools notify parents about explicit material, such as the book “Beloved,” prior to assigning it to students. My office received over 9,000 emails during the 60-day session so although we were not able to reply to your message right away, I had the benefit of your message as I weighed this issue.
I was surprised by your personal advocacy of the book “Beloved.” That book is so vile - - so profoundly filthy - - that when a Senator rose on the Senate Floor and began reading a single passage, several other Senators leapt to their feet to interrupt the reading. Susan Schaar, the Senate Clerk, quickly had embarrassed Senate Officials rush the teenage Senate Pages from the Senate Floor in order to protect them from exposure to this moral sewage.
When the Senate adjourned, Ms. Schaar confronted the Senator who dared to read passage publicly; she was visibly shaken as she angrily chastised him for exposing the Pages to the disgusting material that you so effusively praise in your message to me. She was horrified by the passage which described an old man fantasizing about raping a prepubescent girl and leaving her in a pool of blood.
I suggest that you stand before the School Board in public session and read passages selected for you by Senator Carrico, who sponsored this bill, to the adults in the room. Parents trust you with their children and have a reasonable expectation that their children would not be exposed to such explicit materials without being notified. I supported this bill and will continue to work for a parent’s right to know when their child is going to be exposed to such vile materials by their teacher.
Richard H. Black
Senator of Virginia, 13th District
Berg’s second email
Reading a passage does absolutely nothing, and that is what will happen if you force teachers to do this. You miss the entire point and context of the novel if you only read specific passages. Slavery was an atrocious and vile time in our nation’s history and the reader needs to understand that in order to grasp the reasoning behind Sethe’s actions towards her daughter. But I am sure you knew that because you were an English major and have studied literature in depth. And of course I am sure that you read the ENTIRE novel and not just passages. I mean, even my students get marked down for only reading parts of the novel, so I am sure you are leading by example, and have read the whole book before passing judgement.
As for you calling into question my care for the students in my classroom, I am beyond appalled. As an AP teacher myself, I assign books that appear on the AP Literature exam, and guess what book has appeared on the test in 1990, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007…Beloved. Do you know why it so frequently appears on the test? Because it is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by a Noble Prize winning author with a message that the College Board deems important enough to put on their test.
When I teach these novels in my class, I approach them with the academic integrity and maturity that they demand, and my students follow suit. I have never had an issue with a student not understanding an author’s intent for writing certain scenes because I am a professional teacher. I have spent the majority of my adult life studying, analyzing, and teaching these texts. Let me do my job. The subject I teach is English, but my main concern each and every day is the students in my classroom. Part of my concern is exposing them to a wide arrange of concepts, ideas, voices, and stories to broaden their horizons so they do not grow up to be ignorant adults.
It’s ridiculous that you are trying to control education when you have no idea what in entails. You do not want free thinkers. You want people to adhere to your particular version of morality which does not encompass everyone. You also do not know teenagers. They are exposed to these issues each and every day. Would you rather it be from the Kardashians and snapchats or in an educational environment? And topic you deem taboo are topics that encompass the human experience in all of its evil and greatness. You cannot censor life.
I will be more than happy to read these passages in front of the School Board to a room full of adults. However, I will not just read excerpts themselves, I will read the entire novel, after prefacing it with a background and introduction lesson like I always do in my classroom. I will have guided questions for the adults to prepare them for ideas that are going to be presented. I will stop at certain sections to discuss the ideas. I will teach the novel because again, I am a professional teacher. In fact, if you would like, I can come to your office and personally teach you the novel and many others, but be prepared to actually read the entirety of it.
I want teachers who won’t teach such vile things to our students. Slavery was a terrible stain on this nation but to teach it does not mean you have to expose children to smut. The idea that you would oppose allowing parents the opportunity to be better informed about what their child is reading is appalling and arrogant. You do not know better than the parents.
Richard H. Black
Senator of Virginia, 13th District