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How to teach slavery

By August 30, 2019 3 Comments

I don’t know how exactly–or who–told me I had to read Beloved. I do remember having a single copy of three Toni Morrison novels–one of them was Song of Solomon–on my shelf, but I hadn’t read it when Beloved was published. My guess is that when she won the Pulitzer in 1987, I picked it up. I remember wanting to see what she did with the supernatural.

Some time later, Christianity Today asked me to write up a list of my all-time favorite novels, a perfectly impossible task. Listing favorite books is like listing favorite children–it simply can’t be done. For instance, no book I’ve read recently is as memorable as Educated, a memoir by a woman born into a tormented family, a book I’d never, ever call “a favorite.” I loved The Comfort Bird, the story of two Frisian families, only one of whom immigrated to America. I loved it because I felt as if I was in it. But I don’t know that I’d ever call it “my favorite novel.”

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a searing story about slavery, even though it’s set in Ohio, north of the Mason-Dixon, some years after the Emancipation Proclamation. At the heart of things is Sethe, a runaway slave mother who seemingly left the horrors behind, but never could. She spent her years of freedom as haunted by “the schoolteacher,” her slave master, as she was by the child she murdered with her own hands, when she determined that for her babies death was preferable to slavery. Beloved employs the supernatural–ghosts speak from the recesses of Sethe’s haunted memories and the very heart of her guilty soul.

All of that sounds perfectly awful, I’m sure. But great literature–and I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead here too–creates characters of such moment that they haunt a reader long after the final page, as does Toni Morrison’s Sethe. When a novel takes you so deeply into a character’s troubled heart and soul, into her very humanity, that character takes on a life of his or her own–and so it is with Beloved

The character Toni Morrison names as “Beloved” seems an embodied ghost of the child Sethe had murdered rather than have her live as a slave. That character or memory or ghost is not only difficult but a powerful and a sometimes undeniably evil force. 

When finally Beloved leaves, Sethe is heartbroken. “She was my best thing,” she tells Paul D, her sometimes companion, who has also suffered the brutal horrors of slavery. Then comes the most beautiful line, a final line that shines bright as eternity from the darkness of the story, when Paul D says, “You your best thing, Sethe.” 

There’s lots of Beloved that’s no longer fresh in my memory, but that last life-affirming line I took home.

Years ago, I watched Alex Haley’s Roots and therewith began to take a deliberate look at my own heritage. I’ve never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I’m well aware of how that novel opened 19th century eyes that had long been closed tight before. But Beloved is something else altogether, as primary to an understanding of slavery as Sophie’s Choice is to the Holocaust, a William Styron novel that has a great deal in common with Beloved.

To me, Morrison’s Beloved is the book about slavery and its shameful horrors. If you want to understand the legacy of horrific institution, read it. It’s not easy. Don’t take it to the beach. She started her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech saying, “Fiction has never been entertainment for me.”

No matter. When asked twenty years ago, I told the magazine that Beloved was my favorite novel of all time, may still be.

A special report in Tuesday’s Washington Post makes the startling claim that slavery, the institution, has never been taught well in American schools: “Misinformation and flawed teaching about America‚Äôs ‘original sin’ fills our classrooms from an early age.” That’s a crime, a sin. At least for some, let me suggest a text. . .

We lost Toni Morrison a month ago. She was 88 years old. Like Beloved, that doesn’t mean she’s gone.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, thanks for this. Not my favorite, but a powerful book that moved me deeply and gave me new pictures and new images and new characters I can never forget. Reading BELOVED puts one through a powerful ethical and spiritual experience.

  • mstair says:

    Great endorsement for the fall reading season!

    Giving Thanks

  • Jim Dekker says:

    Thanks, jim, for this reflection. I read *Beloved* while living in Venezuela, a place in a continent past and present with its own multiple slavers. Ugh. Your observation re *Sophie’s Choice* is apt and profound. Both book and movie broke my heart and now I finally know why.

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