Museum Fellowship Book Reviews
At first glance, it may seem strange to culminate a month-long unit on World War II and the Holocaust with Beloved, Toni Morrison’s novel depicting the aftermath of slavery in the post Civil War American South. But the book is so replete with parallels to the 20th century catastrophe that it serves to reinforce the lessons of the Holocaust quite explicitly and dramatically.
The characters in Beloved are haunted by memories of the past; the torture they themselves endured, the humiliation they experienced and the brutal deaths they witnessed. They are survivors plagued by the losses of family members and struggling against what the omniscient narrator calls "rememory." Their troubled psyches, represented by a ghost who haunts them either literally or figuratively or both, are very much like the haunted psyches of Holocaust survivors. Whether the reader believes in the reality of the ghost of the baby, Beloved, or whether one understands it as an artifact of psychic pain, the result is the same. We feel the pain these characters feel as, little by little, the memories of the plantation ironically named "Sweet Home" are revealed in the narrative.
Beloved was first published in 1987 and was subsequently awarded the Pulitzer. Morrison became the first African-American novelist and only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. The author dedicates her novel to "the sixty million." The echoes of the six million are unmistakable. The sixty million refers to the number of slaves who crossed the Atlantic during the two hundred years the slave trade flourished in this hemisphere. The inhumane conditions on the slave ships led to the deaths of millions of people, conditions described by Morrison in sections of the novel which employ poetry, rather than the direct narrative she uses otherwise. Those brief passages have an enormous impact on the students, especially because they apply what they have just learned about man's inhumanity to man during World War II.
Sethe, the main character, keeps replaying in her mind the scene in which an unnamed character, referred to by the slaves as "Schoolteacher," measures her to prove that she is an animal, not a human being. Students quickly relate this to the displays on the third floor of the Holocaust Museum which explain the Nazis' use of pseudo-scientific racial theories as pretexts for the disenfranchisement of the Jews.
Another powerful scene involves Paul, the male protagonist. He "reremembers" being forced to wear a horse’s bit for several days as punishment for an escape attempt. Paul's degradation and subhuman treatment by the white slave owners are sources of outrage and disgust to students who have completed a unit on the Holocaust. Having been sensitized to the descriptions of the myriad torture methods and brutal treatment of the Jews, both in the ghettos and the camps, the students draw painful conclusions about the ultimate results of bigotry and hatred of those considered "the other."
The novel's climax centers on the dehumanizing effects of the Fugitive Slave Law that rewarded bounty hunters for bringing back escaped slaves. The students immediately see the connections to the European populace that all too often, collaborated with the Nazis to flush out hidden Jews.
I am aware that many Holocaust scholars and survivors advocate limiting the teaching of the Holocaust to the events in Europe from 1938-1945. I agree. However, if the lessons of the Holocaust are to have a lasting impact on high school students, the classroom should be a place to internalize and to personalize. I have found that Beloved is a road into the discussion of other genocides. It has helped my students to understand that all societies are vulnerable to racism and xenophobia, even in an enlightened democracy such as our own.
Shortly after Beloved was published, I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Morrison
talk about the process of writing the novel. She has a mellifluous voice and a charismatic presence. During the discussion period at the close of her talk, I commented that
Beloved was the most eloquent novel about the Holocaust that I had ever read. She nodded and told the audience that "art alone can mediate and make coherent ideas which other disciplines cannot have. This was a story too terrible to write or read but I held your hand and walked you through."