Julie Koehler, a Ph.D. student at Wayne State University in Detroit (and a friend of mine), read Toni Morrison's novel Beloved in a University of Michigan seminar on Great Lakes literature. The instructor asked if students thought Sethe’s decision to kill her daughter was the right choice. “I was one of the few that said, no, I don’t think she should’ve done it,” Koehler said. “And everyone was saying, ‘Oh, she loves slavery!’ … And the teacher sided with everyone else! She said, yes, (Sethe) made the right choice. But I thought it was something we were discussing, and I felt blindsided. It got kind of weird.”
Koehler said her instructor set up the discussion toward the “right” conclusion. The novel is so good, it led the teacher to think everything that happens in the novel is also good—that is, morally acceptable. This showed up, hilariously, when a student protested the mention of male characters having sex with cows. “(The student) said something about it being against animal rights,” Koehler said, “and the teacher just said, ‘They’re men! They have urges!’”
So, that's one way that Beloved shows up in classrooms these days: badly.
Twenty-five years after the publication of the Pulitzer-winning novel by America's last Nobel laureate, what are other ways Beloved is talked about among students and teachers? And -- given that it's Banned Books Week -- what about when it doesn't make it into classrooms at all?
I wrote about this in an article for The Daily Beast. It opens like this:
It’s hard to talk about Beloved.
Toni Morrison’s novel, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, comes weighed with a reputation as a great American classic. It wasn’t long after the Pulitzer-winning book’s publication that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beloved is difficult, complex in language and narrative, and it casts a forceful look at the bloodiest impossibilities of slavery’s legacy in America. The novel opens outside Cincinnati in 1873, where Sethe and her kin are meeting life as free and haunted people. But their house is occupied by the child Sethe killed years before, under threat of their return to slavery. The house “was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom.” It is “suspended from the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead.” It crackles with outrage for the family inside it. Some creep away, and do not ever return.Uncomfortable as the story is, teachers talk about it with young people every day. The classroom brings Beloved to what may be its primary readership today, a quarter-century later. But the ground is fraught: it is one of the most challenged books of the last 20 years.