restricted access Dead Teachers: Rituals of Manhood and Rituals of Reading in Song of Solomon
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Dead Teachers:
Rituals of Manhood and Rituals of Reading in Song of Solomon

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and [End Page 551] try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

—James Baldwin, "The Negro Child—His Self-Image"

It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.

—Toni Morrison, "Rootedness"

James Baldwin Argued Thirty Years Ago for the importance of teaching black history in the United States for the construction of identity both of black and white students. He writes:

So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I'm a "nigger," and I don't, and the battle's on! Because if I am not what I've been told I am, then it means that you're not what you thought you were either! . . . What is upsetting this country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you'd be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history.


Baldwin goes on to argue that the sense of identity in the United States is based on myths that have no basis in historical reality. His argument points out the power of pedagogues to control the definitions that shape identity, which today may be described as the perpetuation of hegemonic ideologies of oppression through the educational institutions.1

In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon the politics of the novel and the politics of pedagogy are closely aligned. The novel's protagonist, Milkman Dead, acquires the knowledge and motivation for his self-creation and self-definition as a black man. In the process, the reader also learns both the pleasure in and the need for a creative and critical engagement of the imagination, based in black history and a black feminist subject position.2 Thus Milkman's initiation into black manhood serves to initiate the reader in the "discredited knowledge" of African Americans.3

As in many of Morrison's novels, the politics of pedagogy are treated both as theme and as form in Song of Solomon. In The Bluest Eye the children's primer is interspersed throughout the novel, representing an idealized and inaccessible white middle-class model of reality as the source of the young black girls' basic reading skills. [End Page 552] Pedagogical issues are also fundamental in Tar Baby, in which Jadine's education teaches her to shun her blackness, and in Beloved, in which the anonymous white schoolteacher epitomizes the physical and mental cruelties of slavery as he employs highly scientific and Manichean terms in his teaching that serve to obliterate black personhood. Schoolteacher represents the relationship between power and pedagogy; he teaches the rebellious slave Sixo, through physical beatings, that "definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined" (190), thus clarifying the urgency of black self-definition, either through teaching, as Denver chooses in the novel, or through writing, Morrison's own tool of artistry...