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:
In the 1680s, Anglo-Dutch trader Jacob Vaark travels from the North to settle a debt from a cash-strapped plantation owner in Maryland. Vaark grudgingly agrees to take a female slave from the Maryland owner. But the slave begs Vaark to take her 8-year-old daughter, Florens, instead, and he accepts. This is the "mercy" -- the slave thought that Vaark would care for her daughter more than the Maryland plantation owner. The narrative focuses on Florens as a 16-year-old on Vaark's farm, her yearning for her mother and her sexual affair with an older, non-enslaved blacksmith.
At Cardozo -- "Home of the Clerks," as a purple-and-white sign advertises in front of the Columbia Heights campus -- O'Leary's struggling salon faced frequent distractions. Intercom announcements with music broke participants' concentration. Some students strolled in late habitually.
Morrison's manipulation of time and setting and her poetic, often indirect style led to confusion. Where is Vaark's farm exactly? Who narrates the first chapter? Why is the black blacksmith not a slave? In fairness, O'Leary noted, "I have colleagues that don't read Morrison or think it's too complicated."
* * *
Early on, it seemed difficult to provoke the students about slavery. At one point, O'Leary read aloud from page 16, discussing the Maryland plantation owner's financial plight: A third of his slave cargo had died en route from Africa, and he was severely fined for "throwing their bodies too close to the bay. . . ."
The students seemed unmoved. "He was polluting," O'Leary said. "Right? He was polluting the bay."
"How many of you have seen 'Roots?' " he asked.
The 1977 miniseries, a landmark television depiction of slavery, was revelatory for O'Leary's generation, but only a handful in the class nodded at the mention. To them, slavery and civil rights battles are important history, not pressing issues.
" 'Roots' showed the brutality of overseers," said O'Leary, 64, an Army teletype operator in the Vietnam War who began teaching at Cardozo in 1977. "My students then said they never would have been slaves. The fact that students in the 1970s would say, 'I would never be a slave,' is because: What happened since the 1950s?"
Some students looked down, others at walls with signs such as: "Today is a great day to Learn something New!"
Finally, someone -- Brianna -- piped up. "I would have killed myself," she said. "I'd stop breathing."
"You've never seen a 'whites-only' sign right?" he asked. The class was silent. Then, one black student said he had seen one as a kindergartner in South Carolina. The class and O'Leary seemed in disbelief.
* * *
Over lunch one day, Brianna and her friend Noelle Nance said that novels built on solemn themes -- even those tied to their own African ancestry -- lose power if the language is not straightforward.
"I read urban books like Zane, and Triple Crown publications," Brianna said, referring, respectively, to a black erotica author and a hip-hop fiction publishing house. "I don't like this book. Toni Morrison does too much. She gotta use the whole dictionary just to give you one sentence."
Noelle, 17, nodded. "She's using all these words that mean the same thing, but she's not really explaining what the whole situation is."
They praised Amiri Baracka, the author and member of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem, who recently visited their class. "That was the man!" Brianna said. "He's a writer, that's right."
"You know how a sentence is supposed to flow?" Brianna added. Morrison "broke hers down so there's a comma after every word."
Said Noelle: "People say, 'Toni Morrison, she's the voice of black people, blah blah blah.' But if what she's writing about don't relate to me . . . then I don't think I should have to like it, and be like, 'Oh this is so beautiful,' you know?" she said. "The only thing I liked about her book was the love scene between Florens and the blacksmith."
Sometimes, perhaps unwittingly, the students revealed bits of their personal lives that mirrored some of the book's themes. In one class, O'Leary read aloud the mother's last words to Florens: "[W]hat I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing. . . ."
"Who has dominion over you?" O'Leary asked the students.
Brianna, whose father died of cancer and who has what she describes as a difficult relationship at home with her mother, spoke first.
"Nobody," she blurted out.
"That's a lie. Right?" O'Leary said. "Who has dominion? Your parents."
Brianna, her right arm tattooed with "R.I.P. Daddy," shot back, somewhat facetiously: "I don't have any parents."
"If you have don't have any parents, then that's okay," he said. "If you live with yourself, then you have dominion over you."
* * *
As class ended one day, Ana Martinez, 17, sat at a computer to finish a poem. O'Leary summoned Ana to peruse her words.
"Hm," he said.
"What?" Ana asked.
"I liked the end," he said, pointing at: "I can never not have you have me." Ana purposely used that line from the book, and O'Leary advised her to insert quotation marks.
"A Mercy" resonated with Ana because of her family, she said. Her mother, Rosa Membreño, a maintenance worker at the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, left El Salvador in the mid-1980s, swimming with an inner tube from Mexico to Texas. She left behind a husband, became a U.S. citizen and married another man. The two had Ana and later divorced.
Now Ana and her mother have forged their own bond. As members of a Seventh-day Adventist church, they kneel on pillows nightly in their Petworth home to pray (often for good grades, in Ana's case).
"I could relate to the characters' discrimination, but I know they went through more horrible things that I haven't seen," Ana said. "I was telling my mom this year how I'm the only Latino in my [gym] class, and this girl said to me, 'Girl, you think you're black, you're just a [expletive].' She was saying some ghetto stuff and I honestly didn't know what it meant. Mom just said, 'It's not worth fighting as long as you know it's not true.' "
* * *
By the last session, O'Leary said, many students had turned in thoughtful essays. The teacher had one final experiment. O'Leary, whose wife is African American, told the class that their 14-year-old daughter played him a song he liked that morning. He asked students to listen to it and draw links between the lyrics and book.
He clicked on his computer, and R&B artist Ne-Yo's song filled the room: "Okay, I woke up in heaven today/She kissed me, I floated away, away . . . Stop this world from spinning."
The class couldn't name the tune. Then O'Leary wrote on the board: NEO. Laughter boomed at the misspelling. As the song played on, the laughs died down. There was silence, again. Maybe it was the productive kind. To O'Leary, the class seemed rapt.