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Critically Understanding History
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Morrison's use of the bit helped my students understand history from this perspective offered by Howard Zinn: If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing . . . that our future may be found in the past's fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present provides accounts of violence against African Americans soon after they were freed, including this testimony by Mrs. Sarah Song: I saw them kill my husband; it was on Tuesday night, between ten and eleven o'clock; he was shot in the head while he was in bed sick. . . . There were between twenty and thirty men. . . . They came into the room. . . . Then one stepped back and shot him ... he was not a yard from him; he put the pistol to his head and shot him three times. . . . Then one of them kicked him, and another shot him again when he was down. . . . He never spoke after he fell. They went running right off and did not come back again. (Zinn 203)Zinn's account illustrates the conditions of many freed slaves after the Civil War. It also provides historical context for the setting of Beloved, as this passage from the novel illustrates: "Eighteen seventy-four and white folks were still on the loose . . . eighty-seven lynchings in one year . . . four colored schools burned to the ground . . . property taken, necks broken".
By connecting African American literature to history, students are better able to hear silenced voices that rarely "come into full cultural consciousness, because mainstream American history is so relentlessly optimistic and tele-ological that it has become painfully difficult to articulate counter histories that do not share these values" (Peterson 1). Literary texts can be used as "unofficial histories" that could "address issues and events that are marginalized or ignored by the rules of safe politics and clear evidence that underlie official historical accounts". Paulo Freire's concept of praxis, a curricular design that calls for action and reflection, can be used to engage students in a process that helps them connect to these counter histories.
Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn appears to the namers as a problem and requires them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection. (Freire 88, italics in original)Action-reflection allows students to discover their personal community histories to discover the unnamed, unmentioned events that not only help them understand the works of Toni Morrison but also reflect on their own place in history. Even one small, otherwise unknown artifact from another era can remind readers of the power of Zinn's "fugitive moments," those hidden, forgotten, or repressed moments when people joined together to resist oppression. Otherwise unnoticed, perhaps even avoided, these snapshots of the past provide a new historical context for understanding literature.
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