This is a column about nightmares.
On January 28, 1856, Margaret Garner slit the throat of her 2-year-old daughter, killing her. Slave catchers had closed in on the Cincinnati safe house to which Garner, an African-American woman, had fled, seeking freedom. She tried to kill two of her other children, too, but succeeded only in wounding them before the white men stopped her.
She later explained that this was no act of sudden madness. “I was as cool [then] as I am now.” She said she simply wanted to end her children’s suffering then and there, rather than see them returned to slavery and “murdered by piecemeal.”
From the bloody skeins of Garner’s nightmare, Toni Morrison wove her own. In her 1987 novel, “Beloved,” she imagined the dead toddler as a ghost, haunting the mother who killed her. “Beloved,” a dense, harrowing and deeply affecting work, became one of the most acclaimed novels of the century, winning a Pulitzer Prize. A 2006 New York Times survey of critics and authors named it the best American novel of the previous 25 years.
But it gave Laura Murphy’s son nightmares, and that was that. Never mind that Blake Murphy was a high school senior, reading it in an AP literature class. Never mind that “AP” means advanced placement: challenging, college-level course work. Since 2013, Murphy, a white woman from Fairfax County, Virginia, has been trying to ban Morrison’s book. Part of her complaint is that it is too sexually explicit.
We are asked to believe her son’s night terrors came from sex scenes? To phrase this delicately: Dreams inspired by sex scenes are usually rather more pleasant than that. So it seems reasonable to believe that what really triggered Murphy’s son and thus, Murphy, was that malevolent poltergeist and the weight of hate, horror and history it carries.
The upshot is that Murphy ended up in a commercial last week for Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, as Exhibit A in his argument that parents need more control over what their children are taught in schools. He’s been blasted for the spot, Democrat Terry McAuliffe calling it a “racist dog whistle.”
It won’t surprise you to hear that Youngkin pleads innocent. Apparently, it’s only coincidence that all this fits as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle piece with the ongoing GOP push to pass laws that ban the teaching of African-American history. To hear them tell it, “critical race theory” is out to burn their fields and sack their storehouses, and they must stop it by any means necessary.
One wishes they’d muster even a fraction of that urgency to confront, say, school shootings, which posed a greater threat to Murphy’s son than anything Toni Morrison ever wrote. The only thing she ever posed was a challenge to his understanding of the world and his place in it. Which is something great literature is supposed to do.
But then for some of us, some nightmares simply matter more than others. Apparently, the one Blake Murphy had is more important than the one Toni Morrison wrote and the one Margaret Garner lived. It also seems to be more important than the nightmare America is now enduring, one of misguided priorities, misapplied resources and the misplaced anger of those who see “their” country changing and cannot handle it.
It is a nightmare of ascendant ignorance, raw intolerance and would-be “leaders” more vested in restoring the past than shaping the future.
This is the nightmare that should concern us. It holds America in thrall.
And we can’t seem to wake up.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.