Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

I feel like the kid who is absent the day people pick lab partners and is stuck with the weird kid

Basically, I am saying that most of the good options are already taken by other people.  Which is great.  I enjoyed reading all of your posts and feel that there are some really good ideas out there.  My post is basically a fragmented mess of semi-formed ideas, but that is often what my units look like before I actually start teaching them.  I’ve never been a plan every second of every minute of every class kind of teacher.  I have some general points I want to hit, but am usually open to any interesting side routes that present themselves along the roughly sketched path in my brain.

One thing that I would obviously want to discuss with Nat Turner, would be the gruesomeness of it.  But I want to go beyond just what makes it gruesome? or is this necessary? or is there any place for this sort of content in a serious literature class?  I would want to focus on how the graphic novel as a form achieves this revulsion in us compared to other media.  Does Nat Turner have a more visceral effect on a person, then a description of torture/murder in a novel?  How about a nonfiction account?  And finally, what about a medium where the viewer is more passive, like film or television?  How effective is each of these mediums in making us uncomfortable and what specific techniques does each employ in the process?  This would be tough in a high school classroom, as issues would obviously arise if you were to start long detailed passages of brutal acts  of violence or showing clips from violent movies.

As I mentioned last week, I think Nat Turner would be a great companion text for the novel Beloved. Many of the same themes are explored and Beloved is as much of a stomach punch text as Nat Turner in my opinion.  Nat Turner would also obviously work well with The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.  William Styron’s novel is interesting because it elicited a response from prominent black writers such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin** (called William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond appropriately enough).  The main issue was that the black writers took issue with the way that Styron (white, Southern) portrayed Turner.  Questions arise about whether a white writer has any “right” to tell a historical black man’s story, and broader issues about depictions of race, gender, sexuality, etc.  Do certain people or peoples “own” certain stories?  Is there such a thing as out of bounds in literature?  Does anyone have a problem that Kyle Baker is a white man telling this story, and telling it in this way?

Have students pull what some people are claiming Thomas Gray did and write a completely fabricated confession of a real historical (or even someone in the news today) figure.  All they would need would be some basic facts about a marginal person in a history textbook and could fill in the details themselves.   If you want to get crazy, you could have them turn it into a graphic novel.  Writing a poem helps you understand the mechanics of poetry in a way that just reading poetry cannot, it makes sense that the choices involved in creating your own graphic novel would lead to a deeper understanding of the form as well.

**Correction:  Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin actually defended Styron, I misread the information I was looking at.  My apologies.  However, there was quite a brouhaha over Styron’s novel, especially when it won the Pulitzer Prize. There is a section on Styron’s novel and the response to it in the reading on Blackboard.

Literature vs. Text

I have read in many of the blog posts for this week that several of my classmates have trouble identifying graphic novels, or comic books for that matter with “literature.”  Most of the time, this seems to be an exclusionary distinction, graphic novels cannot count because it is primarily a visual medium, and “literature” is the written word.  One potential flaw I see with this distinction is drama.  Plays are primarily a visual medium, they were meant to be seen on the stage, performed by actors, not read.  However, I do not see  a rush to exclude Shakespeare from the category of “literature.”

Is my example a bit extreme? Probably, but i wanted to hit home a point.  I think instead of focusing on “literature” we should instead focus on the idea of “texts.”  Though hardly a technical definition, I think that a text is anything that can be interpreted, anything that can be considered more than the sum of its parts.  I also think that there is great value in studying various texts in the English classroom beyond just the written word.  Our students are barraged with hundreds of “texts” on a daily basis, a majority of which do not fall under the classical definition of literature as the written word.  I want my students to be able to read and interpret these texts as well as the more traditional written texts we look at in class.

For example, to study John Donne’s “Meditation XVII” in my class, I used a variety of texts to look at the theme of the interconnectedness of mankind across different mediums.  We used songs like “I am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkle, which takes one of Donne’s metaphors and explores the disadvantages of human connection.  Then we compared Three Dog Night’s “One” with Aimee Mann’s cover of the same song to discuss how Mann attempted to convey the mood of the lyrics with her more somber rendering of the song.  We looked at movie clips from “I Heart Huckabees” and “Magnolia.”  I showed them the art project Garfield Minus Garfield to show the isolation we feel when we lose that human connectedness.  We also looked at the website We Feel Fine to show how the internet has fostered a change in human connectedness on a global scale by its ability to place us in touch with large numbers of strangers with relative ease.  Their final assessment is to write a “Pop Culture Meditation” where they find a text in their own lives that explores the theme.  My students are into it, they are engaged in a way that they have not been when we have just looked at the written word.

As far as Nat Turner goes, I think that there is something of real value to be studied.  To me, it mirrors a lot of the same themes as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a text that I think everyone can agree is a piece of great literature.  The horrors of slavery dehumanize the characters in both of those texts to the point where they commit brutal acts that it is hard for modern day readers to fully comprehend.  I think both texts also serve to show that the scars of slavery have yet to be fully healed in American society.

Yes, the written word has been the traditional mode of study for these types of things in the past. However, for hundreds of years, the written word was all we really had to study.  I was reading an article the other day about colleges across the country who are now offering courses in HBO’s The Wire, a show of which the most common adjective seems to be Dickensian.  As these other types of media and texts mature and show more depth, I think it will become common to study them alongside of traditional written texts, and I am all for it.