Why Toni Morrison’s Books Should Be Required Reading
On August 5th, the world mourned the loss of Toni Morrison, a groundbreaking American writer and one of my literary heroes. The Nobel Prize-winning author combined historical fiction, magical realism, nonfiction and other categories to create her own genre, earning popularity from Oprah’s Book Club and censorship from school districts that criticized her books’ “adult themes.” Morrison’s books aren’t reserved for adults alone; in fact, her works should be required reading for all high school students.
I wrote my junior year capstone research paper in my AP Literature and Composition class on two of Morrison’s novels, Song of Solomon and Beloved. Compared to the books I had previously read for my high school English classes, which included the likes of Hamlet and Crime and Punishment, Morrison’s books offered protagonists with struggles that were far more relatable and heartbreaking. As I read Song of Solomon, I followed Milkman’s quest to rediscover his family’s history and empathized with Hagar, whose hunger for beauty and affection lead her to self-destruction. Morrison also underscored teenage girls’ lack of self-esteem and society’s tendency to equate whiteness with desirability, two themes that are still relevant to girls today. While the time jumps and supernatural aspects of Beloved were initially confusing, I read the book about three times to fully comprehend the pain of a mother who made a gruesome sacrifice to save her baby from a slave’s fate. In the novel, it seems that the ghost of a dead daughter returns to haunt her mother, but readers are left to interpret the book’s true premise, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It’s important to recognize that Morrison’s novels focus less on the progression of the plot and more on each character’s motivations. This can be frustrating to teenage readers who are looking for a suspenseful read, but it also proves that a good book doesn’t have to unwind in a traditional, chronological style.
Toni Morrison’s books explore the African American experience with detail, depicting both pain and triumph without creating narratives that emphasize the oppressor’s violence more than the victim’s emotional journey. In school, I often saw students in English class holding The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, both of which reaffirm stereotypes, while practically no one had Beloved in hand. My school district did require us to read Song of Solomon as a summer reading book, but most kids grumbled about the district’s selection and skimmed SparkNotes instead of finishing the whole book.
This mindset needs to change. To pay tribute to Toni Morrison’s indelible impact on American literature, schools must incorporate her books into English class curriculums and encourage teachers to hold class discussions instead of simply testing students on the reading material. Her works are controversial in some areas due to their descriptions of rape, violence, and racism, but removing these books from schools’ shelves will just reinforce the idea that today’s youth is sheltered and ignorant. Morrison’s writing may elicit some uneasiness from readers due to its graphic imagery, but any omissions would detract from the realistic nature of her repertoire. If young adults read Morrison’s books, our generation may become more compassionate and knowledgeable, allowing us to raise awareness about the same issues that the author illuminated in her prose.