Beloved Blues

Season 7, Episode 5

Despite being one of the most frequently banned authors, Toni Morrison’s work has inspired countless others to tell stories outside the mainstream. We take a closer look at Morrison's writing, her legacy, and her impact on the anti-censorship movement.

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Check out our list of Toni Morrison's books.

Episode Transcript

[Promotion for Debutiful]

Toni Morrison The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered, swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that’s a nightmare.


It’s as though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink. A writer’s life and work are not gift to mankind ... a writer’s life and work are its necessity. Thank you.


Virginia Marshall That was Toni Morrison speaking in 2008 when she accepted the Literary Service Award from PEN America. The audio comes to us courtesy of PEN America. Morrison is a Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee and recipient of both a Nobel and a Pulitzer Prize. 

Adwoa Adusei To add to that impressive list of accolades, we’ll also say that Toni Morrison was a stalwart crusader against censorship. Up until she passed away in 2019, she spoke and wrote often about the dangers of book bans. And she edited a collection of essays about the importance of intellectual freedom in schools and public libraries.   

Virginia Marshall Morrison knows about censorship first-hand. Her novels have been among  the most frequently banned and challenged in America. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, is a constant fixture on those lists, along with Beloved, which was published in 1987. 

Adwoa Adusei Last episode, we talked about why and how books get that “classic” label, and what that does for those books. Despite the fact that Morrison’s novels are considered literary canon—and are widely read in high schools and colleges worldwide— her books are still being challenged and banned. 

Toni Morrison signing books at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn 
after BPL’s Brooklyn by the Book series, co-curated by Community Books in 2016.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei Most recently, attempts to ban Beloved have been used to galvanize conservative political campaigns not only at school boards, but at the highest level of state.

Virginia Marshall In 2021, Glenn Youngkin, then the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, ran a campaign ad featuring a Virginia parent who was upset that her son read Beloved in an AP English Literature course his senior year of high school. She petitioned the state to restrict access to the book back in 2016 and the bill made it to the governor’s desk, only to be vetoed. Youngkin resurfaced that story in 2021 as an appeal to voters. 

[Parent from the campaign ad: "As a parent, it's tough to catch everything. So when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you could imagine."]

Virginia Marshall Youngkin presented himself as the politician who would ban the books that some parents objected to. He wanted to tap into a growing movement for “parental rights in education.” And it worked. The ad caught national attention. 

[Newscaster: "There’s been a firestorm in the Virginia race over the teaching of Toni Morrison’s Beloved."]

Newscaster: "Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin says the book should be banned and parents want it."]

Virginia Marshall Even the President weighed in when he campaigned in support of Youngkin’s democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe.

[President Biden: "He’s gone from banning a woman’s right to choose to banning books written by a Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison."]

Adwoa Adusei Glenn Youngkin won. He’s now governor of Virginia. And just months into his term, he resurrected the so-called “Beloved Bill” from 2016, and signed it into law. That law – also referred to as HB 516 and then SB 656 – regulates books in schools that could be considered “explicit.” Under this new law, parents have oversight over what their child reads as part of the curriculum … and teachers must provide alternative texts to anything that the parent objects to. 

Virginia Marshall Many have argued that the so-called “Beloved Bill” is a slippery slope on the way to censorship. In our conversations with writers and activists over the course of this series, many of them pointed to this moment – this governor’s race in Virginia – as the start of the recent and unprecedented rise in book bans. For many, this was a turning point.  

[Theme music]

Adwoa Adusei As Morrison herself pointed out in her 2008 PEN America speech, censorship affects not only books by marginalized voices of the past and present — but can also stifle the creation of future work; those universes that can then only be described in invisible ink. In this episode: we look at the impact of Morrison’s words and their staying power. And we’ll also investigate the importance of writing to those most impacted by censorship. I’m Adwoa Adusei.  

Virginia Marshall And I’m Virginia Marshall. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves. 

[Theme music out]

Adwoa Adusei Over in Washington D.C., Dana Williams, Dean of Howard University’s graduate school and professor of African American Literature, was watching Glenn Youngkin’s campaign closely.

Dana Williams Political scientists are very clear that motivating people around issues that you need contentious issues to make people feel like they have to vote. And what's more contentious in the cradle of the Confederacy than slavery?

Adwoa Adusei Professor Williams is also the president of the Toni Morrison Society. So when she heard what Youngkin was doing, she recognized his strategy…

Dana Williams Toni Morrison's Beloved, it’s an ideal text because it does deal with slavery, and it forces conversations around the horrors of slavery that you have to deal with. 

Virginia Marshall Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who in 1856 fled from Kentucky to the free state of Ohio with her family. Rather than have them recaptured into slavery, Margaret attempted to kill her four children. She succeeded in killing her youngest daughter, and the subsequent trials created a veritable media frenzy for the time: at the heart of the case was whether Margaret should be tried for homicide or the destruction of property, bringing into question the difference between Ohio’s recognition of the personhood of the enslaved and the Federal government’s position following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. 

Adwoa Adusei So when we talk about banning Beloved, we’re also talking about erasing this history. This was such an important story to Morrison herself that she made it into an opera called “Margaret Garner.”

[Victoria Okafor sings "A Quality Love" from "Margaret Garner," the opera.]

Adwoa Adusei It’s one of the very few operas that features Black characters, and it was first staged in 2005. This is a recording from the Cincinnati Opera in 2020.

Virginia Marshall Beloved the novel, however, takes place post-Civil War. There is not only infanticide, but also scenes of violence, rape, and bestiality. "Beloved" is the name given to the youngest daughter, a literal ghost that haunts the characters and then becomes a real woman. Morrison wants your suspension of disbelief about the ghost in order to understand real horrors about race and slavery that are often pushed into the margins. We’re giving you this background because it’s important to know what Youngkin and others want to erase. 

Dana Williams Beloved is in some ways the perfect text to be a touchstone, to say this is what we don't want our children to know about. We don't want them to think about infanticide because it's another version of abortion. We don't want our children to learn about slavery because it's over and who needs to continue talking about that in this way anyway? And slavery could not have been so bad that people would have been willing to kill their children rather than have them go back. 

Adwoa Adusei There is an irony that Beloved is based on a story about how far a parent would go to protect their child from the cruelty of the world. And when when talk about banned books, the loudest right-wing argument to censor materials is that it’s all for the sake of parents’ rights. That’s what makes Morrison a perfect target for politicians like Youngkin.

Dana Williams So, choosing Toni Morrison's Beloved has so many resonances. You have the opportunity to really throw cheap shots at America's premier author who can't defend herself because she is an ancestor. But you can still try to compromise this notion of a Black woman the premier American writer. 

Virginia Marshall One of the reasons Morrison’s words are so political and her novels so frequently challenged is that she is a Black woman in a position of literary power. Because if we say that Toni Morrison is one of the foremost American writers — and she has all the accolades to prove it — then what does that say about America? 

Dana Williams When Morrison pushes us in these novels and in the essays to think about particular experiences of Black people as being universal, that makes people feel uncomfortable for whatever reason. When there are more non-white peoples in the world or more people of color in the world, then that feels threatening to the people who have been at the center and have placed themselves at the center of their world for so long. Morrison's novels, too, to some degree, say, well, that's the center of your world. It's never been the center of my world. 

Virginia Marshall The other Morrison novel that has been at the top of the most frequently challenged book lists in recent years is her first novel: The Bluest Eye.

Adwoa Adusei The Bluest Eye follows the story of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove as she navigates life with and without her abusive family after the ravages of the Great Depression. Poverty and Jim Crow have taken a toll not only on her family, but also on her body and her mind. Pecola wants to have the bluest eyes because she and those around her equate white beauty standards with social mobility. The book explores connections between beauty and sexual autonomy, often with violent consequences for its characters.


Adwoa Adusei The reason often cited for challenging both Beloved and The Bluest Eye is that the novels are “sexually explicit.” We’ve talked about the use of that term to ban works of literature by and about members of the LGBTQ+ community, going all the way back to the time of Anthony Comstock in the 1870s. And Professor Williams pointed out a similar pattern when it comes to applying the “sexually explicit” label to Morrison, too.

Dana Williams Book bans are about more than what they say they are about. They're about more than the content. They're also about an unwillingness of an adult outside of a classroom, outside of a library space, to have the very difficult conversations about life with young people. How do you have a conversation about sexual assault? How do you have a conversation about a woman's right to choose? How do you have all of these conversations around desire and alternative responses to desire—the full range? And these are really important conversations to have. And fiction does the work that real life experiences simply cannot do, because they allow for imagination. And so I think is it really important to read these books even when the content is complicated.

Virginia Marshall If the aim is to shut down those conversations, we end up with bills like Virginia’s HB 516 or Oklahoma’s HB 1775 or Texas’s HB 900 — all legislation that we’ve mentioned in this series. And there are so many others like them. On their surface, these bills seek to monitor the sexual and racial content in school books. But when you look at their impact and intent, the bills end up disproportionately censoring all kinds of writing from Black authors, from writers of color, and queer writers.

Adwoa Adusei Professor Williams pointed out that Toni Morrison just wants to have a conversation with her readers.

Dana Williams She's literally taught me how to read differently, because it was requiring that engagement with me. And she did that on purpose. I didn’t know it at the time and I’ve since learned as a Morrison scholar — Oh, she wants me in this book. She's thinking about, I want to write the book that I wish was there, so I want to write the book that I would read. So she's always thinking about where does the reader come into this story? 

Virginia Marshall Professor Williams is talking about one of Morrison’s most famous quotes. It goes like this: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” 

Adwoa Adusei It’s such a great quote because it implicates the reader, right? If a reader of books can’t find what they’re looking for, then they have to join the conversation. They have to write their story. That quote from Morrison was so persuasive to one aspiring writer that they had it tattooed on their arm.

George M. Johnson It's one of my favorite quotes because honestly, like it applies to all areas of life. It's like if there's a thing that you want to do and that thing hasn't been done yet, then you should probably be the first to do it.

Virginia Marshall This is George M. Johnson, journalist, activist and writer. We published our full interview with George in a bonus episode last week. Their memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, was included on the top ten most banned books in 2021 and 2022, along with The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.  

George M. Johnson Toni Morrison has now passed away. So, like we're talking about a book that's 40, almost 50 years old that they're still trying to keep out of the hands of young adults. So like to be on any list with her is iconic, but even more so, it means that I'm doing the right thing because I'm trying to tell a truth that needs to be told. And that's all that Toni Morrison was doing. 


Virginia Marshall In their memoir, George recalls growing up in New Jersey, exploring their identity and autonomy in being young, Black, and queer in America. Their story includes moments of both joy and growing pains, from chipped teeth and bullies to reckoning with other types of trauma: family health scares, racism, homophobia, and sexual assault. George delves into their own personal experiences in order to give voice to things that are sometimes difficult to speak about. 

Adwoa Adusei Not many memoirs come with a trigger warning, but in All Boy’s Aren’t Blue, Johnson included an Author’s Note where they discuss that Toni Morrison quote, and the fact that some may find their story hard to read.  

George M. Johnson I just want to make sure that people know what they're about to enter it and not be triggered by it. So I needed to like, say, like hey, before you enter this world, this is the world you're going to be entering into. And I think it's worked out in a really, really beautiful way. Because, with the book being banned, I'm always able to say. But the Author's Note already says all of that. So your child or whomever could stop reading the book if they feel like what they're entering into is too much for them.

Virginia Marshall In some respects, Johnson believes that writing about the love and support from their family has proven even more radical than the scenes of sex and violence. And yet, those scenes of sex and violence are the ones that politicians and conservative activists have taken out of context and read at school board meetings and even — this past September — at congressional hearings.

George M. Johnson These people are trying to censor materials that I know have helped save lives and they claim it's in the name or the vein of wanting to quote unquote protect children. But it's like, which children are you protecting? 


Branda Gorgies The teacher told us to pick out a book for our project, and I was looking at her bookshelf and, you know, I saw the book. 

Virginia Marshall This is Branda Georgies, a teen in the San Diego area. They first came across George’s memoir in their classroom when they were looking for a book for a school project.

Branda Gorgies You know, it talks about how their identity as a Black person intersects with their identity as a queer man. And I just like really interesting to me. And it's an experience that I don't hear a lot about, and it's an experience I can partly relate to because I'm queer. 

Adwoa Adusei Branda read the book and loved it. Then, they saw an article on CBS about book bans. When they realized All Boys Aren’t Blue was on the list, they were surprised.

Branda Gorgies This doesn't make sense to me, you know? And so I just like, gained an interest in trying to figure out why this is happening.

Virginia Marshall So, Branda began reading other banned books. 

Branda Gorgies I also checked out two other books. I checked out The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bluest Eye.

Adwoa Adusei They were so impassioned by the idea that these books were banned that they founded a banned book club at school.

Branda Gorgies We all sit down and then we just talk about what's happening in our book, you know, like an update on the plot. And then I kind of just let the conversation flow from that. You know, I wanted to make these books more accessible because they all share really important stories and narratives, you know, especially with people of color, with queer people. And as a young, queer person myself and as a person of color myself, you know, I feel like these narratives need to be shared, even if sometimes they might not be comfortable for you to listen, like to hear. 

Adwoa Adusei Having hard conversations about life can be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t make those conversations invaluable. Especially to teens as they navigate the world. Censorship threatens spaces for parents, teachers, librarians and other trusted adults to facilitate those kinds of conversations.

Branda Gorgies It is difficult to deal with sometimes because, you know, you have to like hide aspects of yourself and hide, you know, parts of your identity because they might not be so accepting of it. And since I can't share my experience, you know, so freely because of my parents, I feel like I could do it through reading those books. If you tell a kid, don't do something, they're going to find a way to do it. I find copies online. I find copies of them in store in the library, and I buy them or I check them out and I read them.

Adwoa Adusei So our call to action for you today is to support the writers whose books are being banned. That could mean purchasing a copy or it might mean joining — or starting — a book club, like Branda. 

Virginia Marshall Or, it could mean standing up  for public libraries to ensure that everyone has access to those books no matter if they can pay for them or not. An organization called Libraries for the People has a series of steps you can take to do just that, from showing up at a library board meeting to advocating to make sure library funding stays in place. Libraries for the People believes that we can't just fight against censorship and book bans. We have to fight for the positive vision of expanded and protected public libraries for generations to come. You can learn more at Libraries For the People [dot] org [slash] fight.

Adwoa Adusei And to send you off on that journey, we’re going to leave you with a parting word from the literary queen herself: Toni Morrison.

Virginia Marshall We have a never-before-heard recording from a 2016 event that was part of BPL’s Brooklyn by the Book series, co-curated by Community Books. At that event, Morrison spoke about her novel God Help the Child and her writing in general  at Congregation Beth Elohim, in Brooklyn. The audio comes to us courtesy of The Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Archive of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. We’re going to upload that talk to our YouTube channel soon, but as a teaser and encouragement to stand up for authors like Toni Morrison and George M Johnson, we wanted to share with you Morrison’s response to this question: What keeps you writing?

Toni Morrison I really don't know how to stop. I really can't imagine me in the world without writing, or thinking of something to write. It was just a free place. It was totally free and it was mine, and nobody told me what to do in that place. You know, I owned that place — and I didn't own anything else. [Laughs] You know, everything else was somebody else saying to do this, don't do this, do the kids. But this was mine. And that's what I clung to all these years. 


Toni Morrison The contact that I make with these female characters is enlightening to me and in the sense it's strengthening, no matter what they say. I've learned a lot from them. A certain kind of strength. Examining the lives of these women. Not power. Just strength. Just a willingness to imagine and to go places that I may never have wanted to go. And also a sovereignty, you know, about its being okay to be me. I don't mean the publishing me, but the me me, you know, the one inside. 


Virginia Marshall Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant. The National Coalition Against Cenosrship’s Student Advocates for Speech program connected us with Branda. To learn more about that program, visit NCAC [dot] org.

Adwoa Adusei This episode was written by me and hosted by me and Virginia. We received editorial support from Goat Rodeo. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffit run our social media. Lauren Rochford helps with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo. 

Virginia Marshall The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel. 

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.