Tomorrow, I start teaching a six-week online class through Story Circle Network on Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved. We’ll be looking at the literary elements and devices that Morrison uses to add depth and power to her work. What are literary elements and devices? You know them by different names: metaphor, simile, irony, foreshadowing, symbols, themes, allusion, etc. Morrison is a master of using these devices to deepen her prose. Oh, another is alliteration, which was just demonstrated by the d in devices and deepen. Small elements that can add up to a big impact when intentionally included in a story or an essay or a poem.
I am excited about teaching this class with my small group of intrepid readers – six of them – as we dive headlong into a deep exploration of Morrison’s story about an African American woman who is a former slave. This book has a gothic element as well since there’s a ghost in the house where this woman now lives and that “haint” is a key player in this story. I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, but the first time I read this book, I realized that I was learning new information about the real horrors of slavery and its debilitating and lasting effect on both the enslaved and the enslavers. I was shocked at new aspects of slavery that I had never considered, such as slave women not being allowed to be real mothers to their children and how dehumanization can have a profound effect not just on one generation, but on many that follow.
As the great-great-granddaughter of a man who owned slaves in Mississippi, I have had to wrestle with my feelings about my great-great grandfather’s actions. Zachery Blackmon is described in our family as a “good man, ” who was kind to his slaves and who even allowed them to build their own church where they could worship on their own. I have spent more than a few years trying to get my mind around the idea of any person being “good” who owned other human beings. Also, as someone who has a small portion of African blood that can be traced back to the slave trade days on the shores of Sub-Saharan Africa, I have at least a tiny inkling that someone I came from many generations back suffered terribly at the hands of white men. I don’t know how to process all these facts and feelings, but I do know that learning the truth about slavery in the United States is something that will help me to be more honest about my lineage and, hopefully, more sensitive to the ramifications of such heinous actions on a whole group of individuals.
Toni Morrison is a fine guide for this journey. I am grateful she had the courage to write this novel for “the sixty million,” the number of Black people who are thought to have died during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Here is a short TedEd video (less than 5 minutes) that will let you know why you should read Beloved:
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Len, as we contemplate the horrors of slavery, particularly from an ancestor who was a slave owner, I think it’s appropriate to remember the concept of appropriate to time and place. Slave owners did not have 21st century sensibilities, nor should we expect them to. Yes, there are good people and bad throughout history, and some slave owners were among the worst but many were “good men” doing what was accepted as right at the time. History is so flexible, and we too must be flexible in our understanding of it.