Teacher reflects on how author Toni Morrison changed her
Marsha Pincus taught English in the Philadelphia School District for more than three decades and twice won Teacher of the Year honors. Most of her career was spent at Simon Gratz and Masterman High Schools. She was a founder of the organization Young Playwrights, and several of her students won national awards for their work. After retiring in 2011, she wrote a one-woman play called Chalkdust that is based on her experience as a white teacher of mostly African American students. The following is adapted from her Facebook post in reaction to the death of author Toni Morrison at the age of 88.
I divide my teaching career into two parts: before Toni Morrison and after.
Reading Beloved in 1989 changed me as a reader, a writer, a teacher and a woman. With the words, “124 was spiteful,” reading suddenly became act of discovery and creation – a piecing together of fragments of meaning, shattered by history, by violence, by slavery, by racism. Writing became a way of healing deep pain, with language becoming the thread that could sew us back together, and words the tool that concealed and revealed secrets.
Morrison taught me that literature is a conversation that a culture is having with itself, and I could see how Beloved was a defiant response to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the scrappy white girl, the runaway indentured servant Amy Denver who helps Sethe cross the Ohio River and give birth to her baby girl is Morrison’s response to Twain. (Amy Denver is first seen eating huckleberries, in case we otherwise miss the reference.) Morrison writes the book that Twain cannot. She gives voice to all the “Jims” lost to stereotype — black men escaping slavery who Twain can only give us through Huck’s limited eyes and ears. Morrison gives black men like Jim their own voices and stories to tell.
And Beloved changed me as a teacher. It opened up the possibility for conversations about race and identity and American history that had been missing in my classroom before – words and feelings festering beneath the surface but ignored by me because I didn’t know how to address them, or worse, because I believed I wasn’t supposed to talk about it in school. This, before Morrison taught me that silence is a tool of oppression. Once I taught Beloved for the first time in my 12th-grade English class at Simon Gratz High School in 1990, a year never went by where I didn’t teach that book to at least two classes a year. It was a healing and transformative experience teaching Beloved at Gratz, where I was the only white person sitting in the circle, listening to Morrison’s words and listening deeply to the responses for my African American students.
It was quite a different experience teaching Beloved at Masterman, where the circle was made up of adolescents whose ancestors came from every corner of this planet. It was more challenging to teach Beloved there; each year there was some blowup, some explosion of emotion that the book engendered. Sometimes I was better at turning those conflicts into teachable moments. Other times, I fear that I may have left some of my students adrift to finish the work that Morrison called us to do or abandon it all together. But I always knew that the book itself, with its depth, its humanity, and its message of radical love embodied in Baby Suggs’ sermons of “Love yourself!!!” would be there for any student who wanted it at a later time.
Nothing that happened in my teaching career after introducing Beloved to my curriculum would have been possible — not the plays my students wrote about their own lives, not teaching every play by August Wilson, not the drama class I created at Masterman to explore our shared humanity through theater and playwriting. And not my shaking myself free from the reins and reign of white male patriarchy which had held me in check as an educator and kept me in line, doing its bidding. Toni Morrison’s work and words showed me the ways in which white people are also dehumanized and imprisoned by racism and white supremacy, and she gave me a language to begin to break free.