Teaching a Culturally Responsive Text with Higher Expectations
and Melissa Sullivan
Modeling Cultural Responsiveness
Reflecting on the foundation of her writing of Song of Solomon (1977), Toni Morrison emphasizes the texture, moving pieces, and “mixture ... in language” that she heard growing up from her family and community. The “richness” in their communication, Morrison said, developed out of the use of “Biblical phrases in regular conversation or ... lyrics from songs or … journalism,” all of which was “pulled from everywhere.”1 Describing her creative process in this way, Morrison exemplifies cultural responsiveness, how she uses what she knows to create new meaning. Additionally, Morrison asks her readers to crawl into the “holes and spaces” of her narrative and weave together the strands of the story in the same way her protagonist Milkman must on his journey to higher understanding and a fuller sense of self.2
In our classes, we expect just such responsiveness out of our students. They bring their past experiences to our studies and find their own intersections with this text that bring them to a fuller understanding of how their personal history affects their learning. The idea of stringing together language, context, and tradition from as many areas as possible underscores Morrison’s impetus as well as our foundation for teaching Song of Solomon.
At the Baldwin School, an independent girls school in the Philadelphia area, Song of Solomon has been taught since the 1990s. The pedagogy that supports it has been constantly evolving. Consistent, nonetheless, has been the fact that Song of Solomon has been taught in the 11th and 12th grades. More so now than ever, we intentionally access a mixture of contextual information for our students, so that we honor Morrison’s work and offer a dynamic and textured understanding of culturally responsive reading for our students.
In the last few years, we moved our study of Song of Solomon from the beginning of the school year to the end, coming after Jane Eyre and Hamlet. The course’s essential question asks how ordinary people become unlikely heroes. By the time we reach Song of Solomon, the students have learned how to read a text against itself in order to piece together conflicting strands of one character’s story. Students are primed to read a novel that demands that they construct the strands of multiple characters’ lives simultaneously. We teach the novel over 16 75-minute classes, which meet every other day. The length of these classes allows us to create “brave spaces” that promote interactive dialogue and personal written reflection. As we study the novel, we honor and challenge each student’s perspective and comfort level communicating difficult and sometimes personal material.
A Year of Contextualization
1. Paired Texts
Throughout junior year, Baldwin students prepare to tackle Song of Solomon’s challenging writing style and frequently sensitive subject matter with confidence and conviction. The summer reading includes Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which students enthusiastically discuss in early September as a bildungsroman (a novel describing a young person’s formative years) and critique of contemporary society. We focus on the novel’s examination of police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, cycles of violence and poverty, and the power of community leaders and activists. We use interviews from Thomas and examples from popular culture to round out our inquiry.
2. Recurrent Stylistic Elements
Students continue to prepare for our unit on Song of Solomon by reading magical realism stories. Investigating the tropes, history, and powers of magical realism, students explore how authors use magical elements in realistic settings to address social concerns that may otherwise seem impossible to surmount. Writing their own magical realism stories at the end of the unit, they experiment with how to address or even solve a problem in their own world, much as Morrison does throughout her novel.
3. Difficult Conversations
We have school-wide co-curricular events midyear that provide students with guidance and space to practice challenging, yet critical, conversation on identity and equity. Baldwin holds an annual student-run Building Bridges Day, a required weekday alternative learning experience, and Woke Week, programming integrated into our regular school schedule. Building Bridges Day is devoted to recognizing assumptions we make about each other in order to foster more mindful conversations and relationships. The community norms created by our Building Bridges student facilitators include “One voice. All ears,” “Challenge the idea, not the person,” and “Assume good intentions.” Our Upper School Black Student Union hosts Woke Week, which includes discussions, activities, speakers, and experiences spread out across a week of school and culminates with an evening film, a read-in on black literature, and a visiting speaker.
4. Project-Based Learning on Display
Following Woke Week and Building Bridges Day, our students research the historical underpinnings for Morrison’s main character, Milkman (b. 1931), so that they recognize the racism, relative economic privilege, and egocentric worldview that he battles throughout the novel. Focused on the Harlem Renaissance and the influence of the Great Migration, this unit builds on history lessons and students’ own recent conversations on diversity, equity, and the individual. Students create well-researched and sometimes 3-D posters to publicize their learning. Forming the literal and figurative backdrop for our study of Morrison’s novel, our classrooms and hallways fill with colorful 11th-grade English creations, which remain on display while we read, reminding us of Milkman’s real-world historical context and the novel’s role as social commentary. Even during the novel’s most fictitious, magical, or fairytale moments, students also know that we are in a sense discussing the lives and histories of their friends, family members, and themselves.
Teaching the Whole-Class Novel
1. Pre-Reading Lesson
We devote the first class lesson to setting up a framework of respect for each other; the novel; and the dialogic exploration of challenging questions of race, privilege, class, and identity. When the students arrive in class, their posters have been supplemented by a bulletin board devoted to Morrison and her novel; a list of the book’s themes, symbols, and characters; and quotations from interviews. In addition, we include a picture of their summer reading book The Hate U Give because the author said in an interview on the online literary magazine Rumpus that Morrison is one of her “writing heroes.”3
This quotation by Brenda Flyswithhawks is also prominently displayed: “No one can take away the stories, the voices, the truth that READING with a searching, questioning heart can give.”4 We ask a student to read this quotation aloud before we discuss it as a group. This quotation becomes a touchstone for the rest of our semester, and students will point to it when they debate difficult moments in the novel. Such moments often include how Ruth and Milkman are teased for breastfeeding until Milkman is four or five years old. Students also react strongly when Milkman’s sister, First Corinthians, falls in love with Porter, a lower-class man and member of the Days, a group that seeks revenge for the unjust loss of black lives by killing white people.
We ask the students to free-write on the power of words: “How can someone establish power over another person using language, spoken or written?” We ask them this neutral question because, in the first few pages of the novel, Morrison describes how naming and words are weaponized by whites attempting to suppress African-Americans. After the students have finished their free-writes, they share their ideas about the many ways language is used to intimidate, exclude, belittle, categorize, or demean. They talk about microaggressions, and sometimes they share their own experiences of being hurt or dismissed because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or other identifying factor.
At this juncture, we acknowledge that Morrison uses the N-word, but that it is a word we do not use in our school. We sometimes feel that we need to discuss why. For this purpose, we read silently and then discuss Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which describes how the only thing the young narrator remembers about what should have been an exciting trip to Baltimore was being called this word. Within this framework of respect and empathy, we begin reading together the first few paragraphs of Morrison’s novel.
Students comment right away on the social isolation of Robert Smith, whose note announcing his intent to fly from the top of Mercy Hospital is never read. They discuss how the different ways white and African-Americans name streets and buildings constitute a battle for control of reality and history. We give students space and time to ask questions and then ask them to jot down responses to the following: first thoughts about the story; questions you have; a phrase that has meaning to you; and something that is not said in the passage. Absence, erasure, isolation, omission, and marginalization appear ever-present in literature and the world. Developing the ability to see what is present and what is absent is a powerful lesson that prepares our students to be advocates and to contribute more broadly to our world.
2. Fifteen More Lessons in Six Paragraphs
As we read the novel, we encourage students to find the contrasts, tensions, questions, and ambiguities individuated in the first pages. We follow the threads of three major themes that undergird the novel (flight, naming, and story-telling), foreshadowed in Morrison’s epigraph: “The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names.”5 We ask students to discuss what it means literally and figuratively to “soar” and “to know their names,” as well as how the text portrays the relationship between parents and children. Mid-reading, we introduce “The People Could Fly” from The Annotated African American Folktales edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar; students hear the story of how slaves on a plantation in the South flew away from their bondage after one old man teaches the others magic words learned long ago when he was still a free man in Africa.6
Students are invited to revise their understanding of its themes as the story unfolds. Morrison’s first lines about Smith, the insurance agent, who tacks a note to his door explaining that he “will take off from Mercy and fly away on [his] own wings,” becomes more than a story of social alienation and silencing.7 We layer on another level of meaning when the narrator shows how the act of naming is a means of controlling identity and history. The attempt of the white “city legislators” to control how the African-American Southside residents name their own streets is subversively undermined by the Southside residents as “a way to keep their memories alive.”8 Already Morrison establishes that names preserve stories and memories.
At this point, students begin to see beyond the personal trauma of how Smith, whom they assume commits suicide because he is lonely and depressed, fits into a larger context. In the end, they will rethink his leap into the sky once again as an escape from the oppressive love and hate imposed on him as a member of the Days and their attempt to balance the biased scales of justice. Beyond the chaotic and circus-like atmosphere of the novel’s first scene, the outcome of Smith’s flight is as unambiguous as the outcome of Milkman’s flight at the end the novel is ambiguous, leaving us with more questions than answers.
In addition to naming and flight, Morrison weaves storytelling into the fabric of her novel. European fairy tales, biblical narratives, Greek mythology, and American history become additional subtexts within our lessons. Through careful study, we see how Morrison shifts our perception of these subtexts in order to make us question our preconceived beliefs. The novel follows Milkman’s metamorphosis into a whole human with knowledge and concern for his ancestors and compassion for those around him.
This bildungsroman features, for example, religious imagery and characters with names plucked from the Bible, such as Ruth, Pilate, and Hagar. Defying assumptions regarding biblical allusions, Morrison’s female Pilate serves as a “pilot” or guide in Milkman’s search for selfhood and identity. Morrison’s writing opens our eyes to the possibilities of remolding and reforming clichés.
Consumed by the painful epiphany he has about his mother and the origin of his nickname, Milkman disregards his community’s suffering as they learn of the torture and murder of Emmett Till, who was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman.9 The students discuss how Guitar rebukes Milkman’s selfish myopia and point out what Milkman needs to learn in order to become an empathetic member of his community. Reading Morrison’s novel gives us role models and opportunities for how to understand and reshape our own stories as well as our collective one. Song of Solomon not only traces an African-American experience but reimagines the single story and fate of all human experience.
The recreation and rebuilding of one’s past are thus a key part of the novel and our students’ educations. We end the unit with a visit from a Baldwin alumna who became an English professor and teaches courses on Morrison. Dr. Crystal Jones Lucky ’82 is compelling in her ability to relate Morrison’s life and texts to our lives today, individually and collectively. To see a past student come back to Baldwin to reflect on her time at our school and life after high school proves powerful and parallels students’ own upcoming work. Indeed, as they transition from their junior to senior years, they will spend their next several months exploring and defining themselves to create a compelling image of where they are from, who they are today, and where they are going.
Wrap-Up, Reflection, and Conclusion
We therefore finish up the year with students writing drafts of what might become their college application essays. In other words, we have them write personal narratives in response to a multifaceted story of a character coming to terms with who he is and what he wants out of his life. In this way, students reflect on their own journeys, “slings and arrows” and all. College essays are exercises in cultural responsive expression. We support our students’ self-reflection at this liminal moment in their lives.
The longer we teach the novel, the more this lesson and the year’s coursework become life lessons for our students. As a school, we have a mission to help develop our students into confident “women with vision, global understanding and the determination to make enduring contributions to the world.” English class has the potential to support this mission and to do so following interdisciplinary and experiential methodologies that encourage students to use their own brains’ memory systems and information-processing structures. In short, students all come from diverse cultural traditions and need to find ways to utilize and transfer what they know to actively create new meaning. Morrison’s text models such a learning paradigm and gives students a structure or approach to imitate.
- Toni Morrison, “Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon,” Interview by Camille O. Cosby, 2004; online at https://youtu.be/RTAQHbLFi84
- Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle (eds.), Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, 2nd edition (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1999), p. x.
- Deesha Philyaw, “Visible: Women Writers of Color: Angie Thomas,” The Rumpus, April 19, 2017; online at https://therumpus.net/2017/04/visible-women-writers-of-color-angie-thomas/.
- Brenda Collins Flyswithhawks, “The Process of Knowing and Learning: An Academic and Cultural Awakening,” Holistic Education Review 9, no. 4 (1996); online at https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/process-of-knowing-and-learning.
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Random House, 1997, 2007), “Epigraph.”
- Henry Louis Gates and Maria Tatar (eds.), The Annotated African American Folktales (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2018), pp. 73-76. To hear Gates tell the story “The People Could Fly,” go to On Point, “Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar Share African American Folktales," WBUR, February 20, 2019 (originally aired December 4, 2017), hosted by Tom Ashbrook, performed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar; online at https://www.npr.org/programs/on-point/2017/12/04/568644871.
- Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- We recommend this book as a classroom resource for talking to students about Emmett Till and his death: Marilyn Nelson and Philippe Lardy, A Wreath for Emmett Till (Boston: Graphia, 2009).