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Tackling Toni Morrison

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At Cardozo High School in D.C., Frazier O'Leary's advanced placement students are studying "A Mercy," the newest Toni Morrison novel. Although the book has been challenging for many, students say they can relate to the main characters. O'Leary himself thinks that, if nothing else, the novel will help students do well on AP exams and impress colleges. Video by Megan Rossman/washingtonpost.com

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

As the Advanced Placement English class began reading Toni Morrison's new bestseller, Cardozo High School teacher Frazier O'Leary, who is white, warned his students, most of them black: The nation's only living Nobel prizewinner in literature, a preeminent African American writer, is not an easy read.

"A Mercy," about slavery in the late 17th-century United States, has a weird structure, O'Leary said. And readers can't always be sure who's narrating, from one chapter to the next.

This high school class in Northwest Washington was among the first in the nation -- perhaps the first -- to study the 167-page novel, released in November to superlative reviews. With the nation's first African American president set to take office and the term "post-racial" moving into cultural currency, major questions hovered within the purple walls of Room 115: Would the teens connect with Morrison's rendering of America's racial past? Could the advanced class comprehend her complex style?

Class discussions suggested that the book's treatment of race was somewhat disconcerting for this generation of students, and its prose style was challenging.

"I don't know how you are as a reader," O'Leary told the students early last month. "But when I started reading the last chapter, I was trying to figure out who in the heck was talking."

From the back corner came an outburst. "That's how I felt for the whole book!" said Brianna Kirkland, 17.

Trying to quell the laughter, O'Leary recounted that someone once told Morrison one of her books was "really hard to read," and the author replied, "It was a really hard book to write."

"Well, she shouldn't have wrote it!" Brianna said, as the class broke up.

Young students tend to read Morrison from a less overtly racial perspective and might not be drawn instinctively to literature about historical subjects such as slavery or segregation, said Eleanor Traylor, a Howard University professor and friend of Morrison's who is teaching "A Mercy" to graduate students.

"I grew up in the civil rights generation, the Black Arts Movement, but these kids have another driving force: They have Barack Obama, for God's sake," Traylor said. "Young people today have been delivered from exclusive paradigms and read with a broader vision of the world and a less restrictive lens."

Morrison is treated gingerly in the nation's schools because her books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Beloved," deal with issues such as slavery, incest, racism or sexual abuse. The College Board, which oversees AP exams, endorses her books, but the American Library Association reports that in 2007, Morrison was among the five most "frequently challenged" authors.

Boiled down, the plot of "A Mercy" might seem simple:


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