Remembering Toni Morrison, 1931–2019

by John Moscatiello

Everyone remembers their first experience reading Toni Morrison. Mine was Beloved, which I read in my AP® English Literature class in the 12th grade. Nearly twenty years later, my mind drifts back to certain turns of phrase and scenes from Beloved, even though I haven’t opened the book since high school. Sometimes, when I am driving under a beautiful canopy of trees, I see Denver hiding in her “emerald closet,” alone, unbothered by the concerns of her life.

Other times, my mind goes back to the agonizing scenes of the man with the white, pointed teeth. The hot thing. I remember when we discussed those scenes in our AP® English Literature class. Our teacher tried to help us see that the images of crowded, hot, suffering bodies were not, in fact, those of an other-worldly hell, but a very this-worldly slave ship. When she finally had to tell us, we were dumbfounded. How could we not have seen it? It turns out that a dozen white kids in suburban New Jersey aren’t predisposed to recognize the experiences of slaves and their descendants.

When the time came for the actual AP® English exam, I prepared for the open-ended prompt by memorizing my favorite passages from Beloved. On test day, the real prompt instructed us to select a text “in which a character’s apparent madness or irrational behavior… might be judged reasonable.” You can still access the prompt here (it’s the prompt on the last page). You can see Beloved appear among the suggested texts. Beloved was a natural fit for the prompt because Sethe’s irrational desire to kill her own children makes sense in the brutal moral mathematics of her own experience. It was an easy essay to write in 40 minutes.

More importantly, Beloved helped prepare me to experience great literature for the rest of my life. I remember sitting on the bed in my freshman dorm at NYU, reading Oedipus Rex in one sitting, my heart racing. As a Spanish Literature major, I encountered Jorge Luis Borges encountering himself on a park bench, walked past the crocodiles in New York City with Federico García Lorca, and lived in the world of magic realism created by Gabriel García Márquez. Just this year, I read Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for the first time. I immediately went back to the beginning of the story to re-read it. I read literature to experience it, not just understand it or learn from it or teach it.

This is what great literature does: it transforms the way we experience all texts and all experiences. It takes the apparent obviousness of moral questions and uses the imagination to see them more fully. Great literature leaves an indelible mark on us as people, coming back to us while we are driving, trying to escape our own lives. Beloved is great literature not because we enjoy it—its vivid descriptions of horrific violence preclude enjoyment—but because we cannot un-experience reading it.

John Moscatiello

John Moscatiello is the founder of Marco Learning. He has been a teacher, tutor, and author since 2002. Over the course of his career, John has taught more than 4,000 students, trained hundreds of teachers, written content for 13 test preparation books, and worked as an educational consultant in more than 20 countries around the world.

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