No English Teacher Gets to Tell Me How to Understand Toni Morrison

Aug 7, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

This week, the entire nation is mourning the death of writer Toni Morrison. Book lovers of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities recognize the genius of her art. 

However, for Black women, Toni Morrison’s stories are more than good literature; they validate that Black women's lives and stories matter. She made her characters real people: multi-dimensional and with conflicting wants and needs. She saw Black women as the complex, beautiful, pained women we are.

My first introduction to Toni Morrison came in high school. In my English literature class, in Arkansas, way back in the mid-1990s, we were assigned to read “The Bluest Eye” and write a book report. I was ecstatic; it was the first book by a Black author I had ever been assigned to read in school.

I’ve always been a reader, but my reading was always segregated: books I read for school and books I read for myself. [pullquote position="right"]The books I read for school were clearly not written for me, about me or to me, as a Black girl[/pullquote]. After reading the “classics” assigned in school, I always felt more alone, more isolated and more unimportant. 

So, I was super excited to try integrating both of my book worlds for the very first time. And “The Bluest Eye” did not let me down. From the first page to the last, from the poetry, the songs, the childhood chants, to the Bible verses, the entire book was finally something written for me. I was so excited to write my book report and to talk about the themes and my reflections. 

My main reflection has changed a bit since I am no longer a teenager. But, at the time, I was captivated by the concept of Black mother’s love being shown by actions and abusive words. The words used by Black mothers in the book—while clearly emotionally abusive to their daughters, and like so many Black mothers I know—to those mothers, it was a form of love. 

More specifically, the tirade that Frieda and Claudia’s mother goes on when she thinks Pecola is being unappreciative of her hospitality and “greedy,” and Claudia’s response to it:

 My mother’s fussing soliloquies always irritated and depressed us. They were interminable, insulting, and although indirect (Mama never named anybody—just talked about folks and some people), extremely painful in their thrust. She would go on like that for hours, connecting one offense to another until all of the things that chagrined her were spewed out. Then, having told everybody and everything off, she would burst into song and sing the rest of the day.

In that exchange, I saw myself, heard my mother, her mother, her mother’s mother and all the Black women I knew: love for us was about survival, and survival included yelling “abusively” at Black children. 

We didn’t have the luxury of “showing love” while trying to survive the racist attacks in America. Nor did we have access to therapists or books on appropriate ways to talk with children. Abuse—physical, verbal, mental, and emotional—was, and sometimes still is, a dysfunctional expression of parental love in Black families. 

My White male English literature teacher disagreed with my analysis of the central theme and told me, “You missed the main point of Morrison’s story,” which, to him (and many reviewers), was about European beauty standards and the pain they inflict on Black people. He gave me a D+ and told me that I should re-read the book, write another report and maybe he would change my grade.

As A Student, I Was Not Free to Enjoy Literature

Here’s how I see the difference in our viewpoints: my teacher’s analysis centered Whiteness as the antagonist; while for me, and I think for other Black women who read Toni’s work, Whiteness is merely in the background. It’s white noise. Whiteness is not the main point. To me, the main point was how Black women, particularly within families, normalize and ignore abusive behavior because we are fixated on surviving racism in America. 

My 15-year-old sophomore self didn’t understand what it meant to interpret the world through different cultural lenses. I just knew the information I was getting didn’t match my experience and troubled my soul. I now know that my teacher was using a Western European world lens to read the book and I was using a pan-African/Black lens.

[pullquote]One of the greatest failures of White institutions is their inability to call themselves “White” institutions. Instead, they pretend to be universal.[/pullquote] As usually taught in schools, English literature offers only a White, Western lens on the world. So does social studies, history and so many other subjects that Black students seem to fail at in schools. I believe many Black students aren’t failing because they are academically wrong; they are failing because they are not using a White European’s world lens in their school work. 

Although I didn’t speak it aloud, my spirit decided that day that literature written by White people, or interpreted by White people, was dangerous and I needed to avoid it. My spirit recognized what my 15-year-old self couldn’t, that literature can be used for White supremacy and that it was propaganda to get me to think in a Western White worldview. All assigned school books and literature was dangerous to my spirit, and, from that day forward, I avoided reading as much of it as possible. CliffsNotes became my friends.

[pullquote position="right"]As a student, I was not free to enjoy literature. I was there to comprehend it, through a very narrow, Eurocentric lens[/pullquote], that never really felt genuine to my reactions or interpretations of the required “great classics." I could write a whole book on Ernest Hemingway and how his reputation as "The Great American Author" has ruined all of his books for me.

I Decide What the Book Means to Me

I am Black. I am a woman. I come from a people who have been exploited, oppressed and erased in most “classic” literature. I unapologetically read, analyze and draw meaning from symbolism in ALL books from the viewpoint of my experience as a Black woman. 

I couldn’t care less if you have a Ph.D. in English Literature from “Fancy-Artsy-Fartsy University,” you don't get to tell me how to understand, feel and like or dislike art. I can create my own interpretation of a book or any work of art, and your need to "grade my analysis of your analysis" is bullshit. 

I decide what the book means to me. Me. 

To honor the memory and legacy of Toni Morrison, to encourage Black children and especially Black girls, I share my story. It is OK if you “don’t get" the "classic literature," or if you don’t agree with your teacher’s interpretation of a book. You are not alone. The main idea and symbolism that you get from a book will probably be different from your teacher, and that’s OK. It's more than OK; it is the true experience of art to interpret it yourself. 

Black girls: you read Toni Morrison for you. You summarize Toni Morrison’s books through your own worldview. No White teacher has the right to give you a grade on your interpretation of Black art. 

I’ll end this piece with a message to Black boys and girls in every school: Write your stories. Black stories in America matter. Continue the legacy of our ancestor Toni Morrison, who proudly said, “I’m writing for Black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio.”

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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