This curriculum unit includes tested and proven materials for teaching Beloved to high school students. We have developed it to offer other teachers a sample plan that introduces students to a contemporary novel written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning living author. Toni Morrison’s book tells of the traumas of slavery and the influence of the past over the present and future. After talking to various historians, Morrison decided to dedicate her book to the “Sixty Million and more,” the most accurate accounting she found of the number of slaves who died as captives in Africa or on slave ships.
While Morrison was working on The Black Book, an anthology of material about black American life during the last 300 years, she saw a news article entitled “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child.” She has said that this article led her to write Beloved. Her novel is based on the life of Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave who escaped with her four children to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1856. When caught, she tried to kill all of her children and succeeded in killing one by cutting her throat. The case received national attention in the 1850s as abolitionists argued for Garner’s citizenship rights and slave owners tested the strength of the Fugitive Slave Act. Garner was taken back to Kentucky but was never returned to Ohio for trial. Newspapers reported that she tried to escape by jumping ship but drowned in the attempt.
We have included two articles about Margaret Garner: one from the February 8, 1856 edition of The Liberator, edited by William Lloyd Garrison, and a second from Slavery Times in Kentucky by J. Winston Coleman, Jr. Other articles and drawings have appeared in The Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, Volume 1. African Past to the Civil War (Johnson Publishing Co., Inc., Chicago, 1974, pp. 222-223); A Pictorial History of Black Americans by Langston Hughes, Milton Meltzer, and C. Eric Lincoln (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968, p. 135); Profiles of Negro Womanhood, Volume 1. 1619-1900 by Sylvia G. L. Dannett (New York: Educational Heritage, Inc., Yonkers, 1864, p. 71); and Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett, Jr. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1969, p. 156).
The awarding of the Pulitzer Prize was not without controversy. Morrison had been passed over the year before for the National Book Award. A group of forty-eight black writers wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988, protesting the fact that Morrison had never won the Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. Morrison did win the Pulitzer in March 1988.
Beloved can be a controversial choice in many schools. It contains offensive language, sexual descriptions, ghostly presences, violence, and bestiality, but our advanced high school seniors have been able to handle this content with maturity and sensitivity. This “ghost story” does require that readers suspend their disbelief and tolerate the presence of the ghost and the possible incarnation of that spirit in the character of Beloved. If the book is challenged, you may want to contact the National Council of Teachers of English for suggestions about dealing with censorship issues. Their address is NCTE, 1111 Kenyon Road, Urbana, IL 61801.
You will notice that the sample time line suggests a six-week unit. We have found that Beloved is not a book to be read quickly or easily without ongoing discussion in class. Students have said they found it helpful to read it in parts and discuss each section before continuing. Unlike some novels where students can easily finish the whole book before beginning class discussion, this one has worked better with a slower treatment and clarification of the plot sequence and events. This is the format we recommend the first time the novel is taught, but we have seen it done in a variety of other ways.
This brings us to one final comment: this unit is very flexible. We offer approaches based on firsthand experience, but we know that there are many other combinations that will work as well. We believe that all teachers adapt ideas to fit their own teaching styles, and this format, like those in all of our curriculum packets, is easily and successfully modified.
Lexile: 790L (Graphic, Sensitive Material)