Book Review: Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison (1997)


Edited by Nellie Y McKay and Kathryn Earle

Here are some of the highlights from this volume in the MLA Approaches to Teaching series. Check out the book for the full details of these varied classroom activities.

Note: I have chosen the essays that have very concrete activities, as opposed to general critical approaches. Also, due to its publication date, this book only supports the teaching of the first part of Morrison’s literary canon, stopping with Jazz (1992). Additionally, some of the information in the materials section about Morrison and the perimeters of her work are no longer accurate.

“Out There, in the World”: Race and Identity in the Classroom

Several of the essays in this section reflect on the racial identities of instructors and students on teaching Morrison’s texts (or African American Literature more broadly speaking). At times, these reflections felt dated but given the current 2016 racial climate in the United States, many of these reflections seem very immediate.

How do you move students beyond preconceived beliefs and help them understand the systems at play? Four separate in class activities are briefly outlined in Toni A. H. McNaron’s “‘Raked with Wonder’: A White Instructor Teaches Sula.” All four challenge students from their positions of privilege and their discomfort with race in ways that bring them into the conversations. These activities find moments of likeness and unlikeness between students and the characters, challenge the limits of motherhood and maternal action, “conscious-raising” exercises that illuminate privilege, and interrogating metaphors for the presence of power structures in language.

Teaching text through history is great, but how can we humanize that history for students? Carolyn C. Denard provides a two part approach in “Beyond the Bitterness of History: Teaching Beloved” that, first, involves a list of six “hypothetical questions to sensitize students to the human meaning behind the historical facts of [the] novel” (44) and to boost serious character analysis, and the second part of the approach uses analysis to teach the novel through the lens of love and its relationship to humanity.

“The Thing out of Which I Come”: Morrison Contextualized

What other texts can be used to teach The Bluest Eye? While I have issues that most of the texts referenced in Thomas H. Fick and Eva Gold’s essay “Authority, Literacy, and Modernism in The Bluest Eye” are by white writers, the pairing that stood out the most for me was using Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to teach the presence of Hollywood in the novel and its use by Morrison to set up questions about identity formation.

How can students write their way to an understanding of Tar Baby? After students have read all of or are near the end of the novel, Madelyn Jablon suggests presenting them with several versions of the “Tar Baby” folktale and having students use the novel to argue which character is the rabbit and which is the tar baby in “Tar Baby: Philosophizing Blackness.” Students then share their positions with the class to better understand the main characters’ outcomes in the novel.

Color and Sounds: Language, Style, and Technique

How can a lengthy and complex novel like Song of Solomon be taught? In five fifty minute class periods. Linda J. Krumholz outlines her day-to-day focuses and classroom configurations to tackle one of Morrison’s longer texts in “Reading in the Dark: Knowledge and Vision in Song of Solomon.”

What can help students understand the significance of music in Jazz? In “Jazz: From Music to Literature,” Anthony J. Berret outlines a sequence of assignments, both in class and out, that help students transfer their personal connections with music to the novel and then to an understanding of jazz music specifically.

“Holes and Spaces”: Interpretive Strategies

The essays in this final section provide critical lenses for lecturing or guiding student readings of her novels. One element that all of these essays agree upon is that Morrison novels are best managed in the classroom by choosing a specific critical approach; from the African oral tradition to the construction of family, it is important to ground her complex texts in something concrete.

What do you with student when teaching Morrison? What approaches do you take to her texts that were published in the last 20 years, since the release of this book?


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