Prize-winning book in spotlight of hard-fought US governor's race

Washington (AFP) – As conservatives across the US accuse local school boards of promoting liberal values on culture and race, a Republican seeking the Virginia governorship has scored points with attacks on the teaching of a Pulitzer-prize winning book by a celebrated Black author.

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The attacks so far seem to be paying off for Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy businessman who has risen in the polls to make Tuesday's election against former governor Terry McAuliffe a tossup in the key state.

Youngkin has increasingly tailored his attacks on McAuliffe around a case involving the teaching of the book "Beloved," by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, in Virginia schools.

"Beloved," based on actual events, tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman in the mid-1800s who kills her young child rather than have it seized and returned to slavery.

The book, made into a 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey, was celebrated by critics.

But in portraying the horrors of slavery it employs graphic descriptions of sex and violence. And in 2013 a Virginia woman, Laura Murphy, began a years-long battle against the book, saying it had given her son, then a high school student, nightmares.

She helped persuade the state's General Assembly to pass a law giving parents the right to opt their children out of reading assignments they see as sexually explicit.

McAuliffe, then governor, vetoed that bill and a second similar bill as an attack on free speech.

Youngkin has now seized on that, featuring Laura Murphy in a widely viewed ad released in the final week of his hard-fought election campaign.

"McAuliffe," said a statement from the Youngkin campaign, "continues to confirm every day that he wants to silence parents because he doesn’t believe they should have a say in their child’s education."

For his part, McAuliffe has repeatedly tried to link his rival in voters' minds to Donald Trump.

"Youngkin’s closing message of book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party — mainly his top endorser and surrogate, Donald Trump," the Democrat said in a statement.

Virginia has trended Democratic in recent elections, but Youngkin and Republicans have worked to mobilize voters angered by Covid-related mandates and by reports, highlighted in conservative media, about the teaching of so-called critical race theory.

That approach to teaching US history, which suggests racism is embedded in the legal system, has sparked angry debate across the country.

It is not on Virginia school curriculums. But Youngkin routinely receives some of his greatest applause when he vows to ban it, according to The Washington Post.

The McAuliffe campaign dismisses that as a cynical attempt to fuel "culture wars." It also points out the political connections of the Murphy family.

Blake Murphy, the son who was said to have had nightmares about "Beloved," is now a lawyer at the National Republican Congressional Committee.