Two remarkable reading experiences this week: in the first one, my students and I read Frederick Douglass's speech "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro" and then followed it with Audre Lorde's "Graduation," a memoir about a sadly important July 4th in Lorde's young life. Because this is an AP Seminar class, the focus of class discussion was form and function, rather than content. But we needed to talk about the purpose, for sure, and it was rough going. No one wanted to approach the topic as a personal one, so we wended our way through the minefield of race. The silence of the rest of the students when two of my African American students admitted that they had thought about the 4th of July this way was a great reward. Two historical essays about a past many of us do not want to own had brought us to this truth, that the past is not gone. It is not even past!
Examining the dark spots on our national personality is hard work, and seems to happen often in school. What do the children make of it? School is often not their context of choice. When they read tragedies one after another, hear about our failings in history class, then must register the emotional impact of those failings in Lit class, how do they absorb these messages into their hearts? Not easily or well, I think. And what must it sound like, once more hearing your middle aged white teacher provide the reading, then wait for you to react honestly OUT LOUD and correctly (at least in her eyes)? Once again, the teacher provides the context for a part of history she does not share.
So imagine my relief to be reading Toni Morrison's 2012 novel, Home, as I was teaching the two short texts: her voice, her history, her craft in a story that examines the pain and the joy in our deeply flawed history--and our present. Our greatest living writer tells a story so personal that it must apply to all of us. Frank Money loses himself during the Korean War and cannot bear to return home to Lotus, Georgia, after. He wanders through his life in an alcoholic daze, telling an unseen person of painful episodes from his childhood. He is belligerent, dangerous and in such pain that it almost raises the words off the page. As she often does, Morrison eschews a chronological, single narrator to tell a story that uses the heart of the protagonist to lead the plot. All the women in his life suffer the loss of him, just as he lives with the loss of them. His epic journey to save his dying sister and himself was fraught with uncertainty, temptation and danger. The truth of the bond between Frank and Cee drives this story to its heroic conclusion. And there I see the narrative that I can share with students--that our ugly past need not be our present-or our future. Home is on the reading list now. Thank you, Ms. Morrison. Again.