A History Lesson Based on Beloved: Criminal Rights, Ethics & Slavery

A History Lesson Based on Beloved: Criminal Rights, Ethics & Slavery
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Once History and English students have completed reading Beloved and have used the previous lessons to learn about Margaret Garner, The Fugitive Slave Act, and the Underground Railroad, and once they have developed their own thesis on the ghostly presence, it is time for them to examine the ethical question at the center of this novel.

That is, of course, should Sethe have been put on trial for the murder of her daughter? The legal question is perhaps one that needs to be answered even before the ethical one. Can Sethe, a slave, be legally put on trial?

Let’s examine the legal evidence.

Sethe committed her crime in Ohio, which was a free state. So, she was, while in Ohio, a person of color committing a crime. However, when she ventured to Ohio, she did so as a runaway slave. Sethe was not considered a person under the laws of the Fugitive Slave Act, but rather property that legally needed to be returned to its owner. The question becomes very tricky.

  • Can a piece of property commit murder?
  • Or, by murdering her unnamed daughter, did she willfully destroy property belonging to the slave owner?
  • Was her crime murder, or destruction of property?
  • Or, did she commit a crime at all, because she was not really, in terms of the laws of the time, considered a person?
  • Only a person can be tried by a jury of his or her peers. Who could possibly try her fairly?

These questions and their answers can spark a dramatic wrap up to the study of the novel.

Place your students into groups and have them research one of the above questions. Hold a class discussion to determine if there is enough support to put Sethe on trial. If there is; and try and ensure that there is, turn your classroom into an 1850’s courtroom and try Sethe for murder.

Sethe on Trial: A Lesson Plan

The teacher should first explain the purpose of the trial: It is a criminal trial to determine whether Sethe is guilty or innocent of the murder of her daughter. Remind students that it is up to the prosecution to prove the guilt.

  • Go through the novel as a class and select the “witnesses” for the defense and prosecution. Try and have at least 5 for each side.
  • Assign 10 students the roles of these witnesses and have them, using quotes from the novel, prepare their testimony.
  • One student, must of course, take on the role of Sethe and again, using quotes, prepare her testimony.
  • Two students should be the defense lawyers and two the prosecution, again using the novel as basis for their “evidence.”
  • Remaining classmates should be the jury and the teacher acts as the judge.
  • Give students a few days to prepare their arguments and prep witnesses and then, begin the trial - which should take about three class periods.

Once the jury gives the verdict, the teacher produces a “sentence”, that is, the students’ grades for their work on this class project.

As a final step, have each student examine the morality and ethics of Sethe’s decision, by assigning the downloadable writing task below. Use it as your final test grade for the novel.

As any good educator can see, by using this series of lessons, Beloved is sure to be a classroom success.

Note: Scroll down to access the entire series of lessons.

This post is part of the series: Using the Novel “Beloved” to Teach History

When you are devising your curriculum and looking for those essential Common Core pieces that stretch across different classes, look no further than “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. These lessons use the novel to teach essential topics in History and English.

  1. Toni Morrison Teaches History: Using Beloved To Teach Slavery
  2. Fact in Fiction: The Inspiration Behind Toni Morrison’s Novel Beloved
  3. A Ghostly Presence: Is Toni Morrison’s Novel Beloved a True Ghost Story?
  4. A Question of Ethics and Law: Using Beloved To Discuss Criminal Rights