Teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Memory, Imagination, and the Narratives of Slavery

The following post is first in a series on teaching paired texts in high school classrooms. It can also be found at Equality 101.

Toni Morrison (photograph copyright by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Every spring when I teach my high school junior elective on Toni Morrison, I start with the same anecdote about the time I was grading papers in a café after school, when I decided to take a break and started reading The New York Times. Flipping through the pages, I noticed an ad that listed Toni Morrison as the featured speaker that very night at the New York Historical Society.  She was giving a lecture as part of a series of talks that complemented the powerful 2005 exhibit “Slavery in New York.” Upon reading the ad, I quickly paid my bill and jumped on a subway uptown to the NYHS.

However, once I reached the museum, the event had already been sold-out. Behind me, a generous woman offered to sell me her absent friend’s ticket and I was in.

This passion for Morrison gets the course started.  Once I enter class on the first day, I know I am not alone with my love. The students who take this upper level course all read The Bluest Eye in tenth grade.  When I ask them to reflect on their reasons for taking a single author course on Morrison, students consistently cite their admiration for The Bluest Eye as their primary reason for wanting to read more of her work.

The course is titled Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Memoir, Imagination, and the Narratives of Slavery. In class, I often use the metaphor that Beloved is the “sun” or central text of the course and other readings that we study throughout the trimester are surrounding “satellite” texts. All of these satellite or paired texts serve a purpose: to demonstrate Morrison’s merging of rich literary, oral, and musical traditions throughout the novel.  These traditions are: 1) slave narratives; 2) spirituals; 3) and modernism.

I have found using slave narratives, spirituals, and the history of modernism helpful in framing Beloved.  As we move along in the novel, students appreciate this framing, as it provides touchstones for interpretation and understanding. Perhaps you will find these satellite or paired texts useful as well.

Slave Narratives

As part of starting Beloved, I provide a brief overview of the history of slave narratives, focusing especially on those written by women and the particular story of sexual exploitation faced by female slaves.  We read excerpts from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1850), looking particularly at passages where Jacobs provides social commentary about the hypocrisy of white Christian mores.  We also closely examine moments where Jacobs reflects on her sexual harassment and exploitation by her master, Dr. Flint, and her subsequent decision to flee and live in an attic for seven years.  Within that span of time, she also befriends and has a sexual relationship with a white lawyer, Mr. Sands, with whom she bears two children.

Throughout the narrative, Jacobs implores her intended white reader to forgive the moral implications of her decisions, and even asks her reader whether it is possible for a slave woman to have a moral compass under the institution of slavery. This latter question is crucial for students to think about, especially as Morrison further complicates this theme in relation to Sethe’s killing of Beloved.

Also critical to focus on during our study of Incidents is focusing on what’s not said in the text. In an essay we read titled “The Site of Memory” from William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, Morrison asserts that “there was no mention of the interior life” of slaves and that her job as a writer is to “rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’” The various stories in the novel, from Sethe’s to Paul D’s to Baby Suggs’s, all aim then to reveal what the slave narratives could not; namely, not only the internal lives of slaves but also the horrific abuses they endured.


Crucial to understanding certain moments in the novel are brief and at times subtle references to spirituals. Often sung by slaves as a form of coded communication for the next escape and for collective emotional and spiritual uplift, spirituals offered slaves “escape from slavery’s restrictions” (Norton Anthology of African American Literature). All of the spirituals I use in the course are all excerpted from the previously linked Norton Anthology of African American Literature (excerpts from Incidents can also be found in this anthology).

Within the first few pages of the novel, Denver makes a reference to the spiritual “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” when she says her dead baby sister has been “Rebuked. Lonely and rebuked.”  One of the ways in which I’ve taught students spirituals is by showing them how they endure in current art forms, such as in the dances of the Alvin Ailey dance company. Here is a video I use from Ailey’s Revelations. The spirituals “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” and “I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” are featured in the first five minutes:

The importance of the biblical story of Israelites being led out of Egypt cannot be overlooked when reading Beloved.  Images of water, from Denver’s birth and Sethe’s escape, to Beloved’s arrival, are prevalent throughout.  Ailey’s “Wade in the Water” sequence, which is also from Revelations, illustrates to students the power of this spiritual’s call to escape by crossing water and the power of its rhythm and lyrics to inspire movement and dance:

Modernism and Contemporary Texts

Students know the term stream-of-consciousness so well, they often think they invented it.  What they don’t know is the history of the term, especially within the context of literary modernism.  The final frame for beginning Beloved is a one-day lesson on how to read stream-of-consciousness writing.  I usually select the first few pages of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because it clearly demonstrates how one memory triggers the next from the perspective a young child.  Then I offer students the last pages of Joyce’s Ulysses.  Students are always struck by the lack of punctuation and paragraph structure in this latter text and by how random Molly’s thoughts are from one to the next; it is the height of stream-of-consciousness in literary form.  Pairing these two texts together provides both a visual and literary entry point for understanding how Morrison will also use stream-of-consciousness in her text. It also allows them to understand our later review of post-modernism, magical realism, and other traditions that Morrison is either a part of or riffs on.

There are a number of other texts that I bring to the course including scenes from Roots, the 1977 television dramatization of Alex Haley’s genealogical saga, and the recent 2008 documentary Traces of the Trade, which follows one white family’s discovery of having been one of the largest slave-traders in US history. We also examine contemporary artistic renderings of the slave experience and its legacy, including Kara Walker’s silhouettes.

At the close of the course, we read Morrison’s Nobel Lecture from 1993 alongside Obama’s 2008 speech on race. Both texts use similar rhetorical strategies, such as framing and ending their speeches with a story; in Morrison’s speech it is the story of a griot who is the keeper of stories, and for Obama, it is the mythical story of our Founding Fathers (full text of his speech here). Both Morrison and Obama use this frame as a way to talk about our collective responsibility to language, history, and each other. Finally, a brief study of contemporary slavery that includes sex trafficking and forced labor brings the course to a close.

All of these texts, whether they are literary or historic, artistic or political, help students explore Beloved‘s complex and challenging themes, making discussion that much richer and deeper because of the connections they make between texts and across genres. These pairings ultimately create a lasting relationship with Beloved that invites students to engage in continued re-readings with gratifying rewards.

Watch for an upcoming post on teaching Morrison’s The Bluest Eye to tenth grade students.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Memory, Imagination, and the Narratives of Slavery

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Learning Feminism in High School Led to My College Choice « Feminist Teacher

  2. Thanks for sharing these ideas! I’m teaching the novel for the first time to International Baccalaureate seniors in Pensacola, FL which has not changed too much from 1873.

    • How wonderful that you found this post useful for your IB class; do let me know how it goes, I’d love to know how your students respond to the text. Thank you also for subscribing to the blog!

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