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. Continue reading