The unit introduces Beloved in the context of nonfiction African American voices right out of slavery -- Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech and Chapter 1 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. If students are studying American history at the same time that they read Beloved, this introduction can be expanded. If not, it might be better condensed or abbreviated.
Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? speech
“Ain’t I a Woman?” works well as an entry point for students to think about the social position of African-American women, “doubly oppressed” and maybe doubly authorized to speak as a result. Sojourner Truth uses her own experience to question nineteenth century definitions of femininity when she says, “Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” She voices her own class and race position positively as well as negatively: “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?” (Truth, 595-596). Discuss with students whether they think she is establishing a moral platform from which to speak as she explains what she is and is not in her speech. Compare this with Morrison’s use an enslaved mother to express the cruelty of slavery. How is a woman, and a mother, in an especially good position to demonstrate the inhumanity of slavery?
Another connection between “Ain’t I a Woman?” and Beloved is the use of repetition of phrases for emphasis. I describe the call and response tradition in African-American preaching and song in a discussion of “Ain’t I a Woman?” and the first chapter of Beloved. We discuss what effects Morrison and Truth achieve through repetition, as well as the transformation of that tradition from an oral to a hyper-literate context. Many students are interested in this “upward mobility” of the vernacular, and feel more closely allied with Morrison. This will ease, for many readers, the adversarial relationship that can develop between a reader and a difficult text.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Another connection I make while opening this unit is between the opening scenes from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; an American Slave and Beloved. Douglass describes some of the most basic dehumanizing aspects of slavery -- not knowing his birthday, barely knowing his mother, being treated as an animal. Like Morrison, he brings alive for his reader the feeling of a slave, to put the reader in his shoes. He writes of watching his aunt being beaten by his master: “It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. ...I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it” (23).
This line echoes, or opposes, the line repeated at the end of Beloved: “This is not a story to pass on.” After reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, I lead a conversation comparing these two quotes and ask, “What is the point of re-entering the low points of history in such a deep personal way?” We discuss the motto of Holocaust survivors: “Never forget.” Why this motto? Where’s the value in remembering such horrors? Where are the problems in this kind of remembering?
This discussion of historical memory leads well into a discussion of time in Beloved, which can present a significant block to understanding for some readers of the book. The easiest way I can think to describe the plot is that there are two, which happen 18 years apart and are told, in bits and pieces, simultaneously. I tell students to look for connections between the two stories, or contrasts. I ask students if they’ve ever had a memory that had a life of its own, something that stops them in their tracks and lets them almost relive it again. This helps clarify the time shifts in the novel. Depending on the reading level of students, this may be too much hand-holding, and I might want them to find their way through it on their own.
As students move far enough through the book to figure out what exactly is the traumatic memory which is obsessively circled around throughout the book, I ask them to focus on the question of “Why Beloved? Why Sethe?” What does this particular extreme relationship capture about the trauma of slavery? Is Sethe a good mother? Can you understand her decision and what do you think of it? The culminating activity of this unit addresses that question in a mock trial.