This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?


I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

45 responses

  1. Hopefully the course description alluded to the challenge topics/literature that would be discussed. I friend of mine taught a Holocaust literature course. Her students complained of nightmares. But they also took the course know the topic would be difficult. Her advice to students was to not read before bed. Read in the light of day, do something uplifting in the evening.

  2. Well, if a student’s reading experience has been limited, when he or she tackles real literature whose purpose is more than to just merely entertain, it can be discombobulating initially. The reader is SUPPOSED to feel sad, disheartened, and disturbed. That is the intent–to challenge their previous notions and develop more empathy. I would describe to the student the intent–that as a teacher, you would be worried if they were not feeling a great many things. Explain that what they are experiencing, although uncomfortable, is part of a real education. True education hurts sometimes. Sometimes we have to confront things we are not ready to know. Sometimes we want our bubble intact. I like Kathleen’s suggestions above, and I would also perhaps encourage the student to write about their feelings. What about it makes them uncomfortable and why? What can they learn from the book and the feelings that come with it? Perhaps if they can succinctly identify what is bothering them they can grapple with it more effectively. Students come from all background to college, and those who are very sheltered sometimes have a difficult time. These kinds of experiences are helpful to them however. It reminds me of the article that appeared in the Chronicle Review just recently–(Oct 11 edition), in “Cultural Studies: Bane of the Humanities.” There are some great quotes, but basically the gist of the article is that if you can’t experience change and challenge through the material, then what good is it? A book about slavery can give insight to culture, for sure, but more importantly, how does it give insight to the reader? Can it illicit true change and growth? Here are some quotes from the article:
    “…by figuring out what they think, students become different people, right there in the classroom.”
    …”if education is not concerned with how we see the world, it’s failing us, neglecting its most important mission.”
    “…can this novel….change the way you look at life? If it can’t, it’s not worth serious attention.”
    Anyway, if anyone has access to the Chronicle Review that was a great article by David Mikics.

    • Thanks for this detailed insight! “…what they are experiencing, although uncomfortable, is part of a real education. True education hurts sometimes.” I’ve been thinking about this particularly lately as regards the discomfort of failure – that in order to learn, we have to get things wrong, and then we feel bad. This is another good angle on that same feeling: learning disrupts our view of the world, and that makes us feel bad. In this case, it disrupts our desire to emotionally ignore what we know intellectually – that slavery existed/exists and was/is horrible and entails real human suffering. I would agree that this is a valuable lesson for college students, even if some will insist well into adulthood and old age that they have no need or desire to learn it.

  3. I agree with the previous posts. Our current society doesn’t feel enough and is often not challenged to see beyond themselves, especially the younger ones in our society. I would motivate them to proceed with the book, but follow it with something encouraging. It’s the ying/yang of teaching and thus molding our students. Good luck!

    • I think “follow[ing] it with something encouraging” is excellent advice; I myself sometimes look at my own reading lists and thinking, “Damn, what a depressing lineup.” The balance between challenging and motivating can be tricky!

      • That’s how I balance it with my courses. We’ll read a Greek tragedy, but follow it with one of Shakespeare’s comedies. I like my classes to mirror life with all its ups and downs.

  4. “…by figuring out what they think, students become different people, right there in the classroom.”
    I think this and the other quotes say a lot and answer the question. For sure it is nicer to stay calm and relaxed and do not think about harsh facts. Unfortunatelly, they are still present in many parts of our world so all of us even students should be aware of them. Education gives us knowledge of good and bad facts. This is why we humans develop.

    • Years ago I took over a course for a teacher who had to take a leave. She passed on the writing samples she’d asked students to complete on the first day, in which she gave them a poem (it was a famous piece, but I don’t remember what it was) and asked them to write a paragraph in response. I only remember one of these paragraphs: it was from a student who wrote that she disliked the poem because it talked about bad feelings, and she liked poems that were about “happy things like joy and nature.” I spent the evening racking my brain, trying to come up with a famous poem that contains no “bad feelings” and is only about “happy things like joy and nature.” If you know of one that’s any good, please let me know!

      • This may do it…but she’s missing out if she’s only looking for sunshine and lollipops and all the pretty ponies.

        BY E. E. CUMMINGS

        [in Just-]

        in Just-
        spring when the world is mud-
        luscious the little
        lame balloonman

        whistles far and wee

        and eddieandbill come
        running from marbles and
        piracies and it’s

        when the world is puddle-wonderful

        the queer
        old balloonman whistles
        far and wee
        and bettyandisbel come dancing

        from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




        balloonMan whistles

  5. This is an excellent prompt. I would begin by suggesting the fact that by having students profess they aren’t ready shows that they actually might be ready. Emotional intelligence is a gift and it is learned. I think you might approach the class and use this tool in an ontological way alongside a way to meet collegiate standards. I think YOU are a successful teacher when you find these situations and really tease out the emotion and guide them through “reflection”. College students [most people in general] often don’t reflect, they just do or memorize content to learn the procedure. Bridge the gap between the IQ and EQ and allow them to learn empathy and apply it to similar situations today (Climb Bloom’s taxonomy). Oppression is still real, maybe this is something they need to think about in terms of their life goals if they feel that strongly about it.

    Reflection, debriefing, and recharging are the vital keys to new emotion. Make sure as the facilitator you equip them with the right tools.

    • Interesting: I would love to hear some suggestions you have for activities that would allow them to “bridge the gap between the IQ and EQ and allow them to learn empathy and apply it to similar situations today.” How can we enable students to do this, especially students who have little practice with it?

  6. I have not read this novel, yet. It is now on my list. A quick check on the novel shows that it had to change its title to Someone Knows My Name for most of America. The plot is certainly a thought and emotionally provoking narrative. For that reason alone, I applaud it as an assignment for students. I agree with the earlier posts that students need to be confronted with such literature; it is a crucial part of their education. I do agree that it would be best for their to be a disclaimer that such an emotionally charged novel is part of the course. I am used to teaching college, where students could choose another class. I do not know if such choice is a possibility in high school. I am not saying the student should be able to opt out. But the student should know up front and maybe even a session or an out of class session on how to deal with emotional material–although I cringe writing that. Should we have to go to such lengths?

    • Patti: It’s an amazing novel; I’ve also considered using it in courses, and I’d highly recommend it to you as a wonderful read. Despite the difficult subject and the sensitive portrayal, I didn’t find the book difficult to read or emotionally overwhelming. (That said, I don’t suffer from what a friend recently referred to as “overactive empathy,” so it could be that I’m colder than the average college student.) As to the title, according to second-hand reports I’ve been given on conversations with the author (whom I know a little), apparently it was changed for American audiences because the American publishers believed Americans would be offended enough by the word “Negroes” in title to refuse to buy the book. Which is interesting on so many levels…

  7. You might bring the issues closer to home. It is easy to have slavery and oppression or women’s rights and equality undermined because the issues are scarecrowed (by laws) even though they are prevalent in other countries. But, we have places like DHS, CPC (crisis pregnancy center), and other organziations that align themselves with providing need for the underserved. Remind the students these exist because there is a need and oppression takes place daily.

    As damomchef said journaling is a must when it comes to debriefing. BUT, you have to do it effectively. Have prompts, like do you recognize similar situations going on today? Can you think of a time when you have felt like you didn’t matter? These may seem trivial but once a student starts exploring their EQ they will slowly develop the skills to become more rounded individuals.

    One of the themes of this book is taking the “hell” that life can be and using it to better life for others. I think it parallels The Giver in a much more graphic and closer to home account. (I apologize I’m 9th grade oriented.) I think everyone has a “bad” part of their life. (Divorce, abuse, substance, feeling lost, ets.). So like Aminata appealing to the British, can your students look at their past and find a way to present the next generation a better way?

    You may even have a project where they team up with someone from the community (professional, victim, etc.) to create a video, powerpoint, pamphelet or some form of awareness for a sepcific type of oppression.

    • These are great suggestions. H, are you getting all this? I love the idea of of relating the suffering we feel over Aminata’s plight to suffering in general, including that in our own “real” lives.

  8. Ohhh, another blogger I like to read had a very similar experience teaching Ellison’s Invisible Man! I can’t find the link to her teaching site where she originally posted about it, but, I found the link on her “home” blog, where she recently mentioned (and included) the letter she wrote to a student who said something very similar–that the book was too traumatic for her! I hope this helps!

  9. Having taken Genocide & Crimes Against Humanity, I think Grumpy Cat best sums up my response to these college students. If history/literature/humanities/etc is too sad for them, they should study something else. This is college, not elementary school. Obviously, if the student has some sort of personal trauma that makes a particularly text triggering, that should be discussed and perhaps some sort of arrangement or alternate text can be agreed upon, but otherwise, they can put on their big boy scholar pants and deal with it. Reality is sad/depressing/soul-crushing sometimes. I spent more than a few days after the aforementioned genocide class, Irish history class, or therapeutic writing class crying with other students or standing in mute solidarity while another student smoked and we both processed what we’d seen. And yeah, it was rough. But it was necessary for our courses of study and to understand the history of our world.

      • And they HAVE to live in a world where things like this actually happened (and continue to happen). This is the same kid of thinking as the people who pulled Anne Frank from a school curriculum because it was too sad or the teacher I had who thought explaining slavery as “having to do a lot of chores” was acceptable. Ignoring or rose-tinting history is not only denying oneself the chance to learn, but it’s insulting to (the memory of) those who lived through it.

      • Well if you look at the general course requirements for a liberal arts, you will find that the only English courses which all students HAVE to take is Composition I, and Composition II and perhaps one or two electives of the students choosing. During these types of courses there are generally no novels which are required reading outside of formatting, grammatical and technical course books. I don’t know this student I don’t feel qualified to give input on their situation, but I’ve seen issues like this before, and in most cases the student was faking their “issues” to avoid reading the book.

        • The situation you describe is not the situation of this teacher, or me. All students in the English Quebec college system (as opposed to the French system) are required to take 4 English literature courses, which include study of many different literary genres.

  10. I wonder if the student doesn’t quite understand the necessity of being able to empathize with this kind of suffering, and if it seems far away and therefore rather optional since we no longer practice this kind of open, publicly sanctioned slavery. Perhaps bringing in content about modern-day enslavement may enhance the relevance.

  11. Thanks for all the helpful comments. I chose the book because it has so much to offer– it’s got a strong narrative, it’s a compelling read, and there is so much history in it. Yes, it is sad, but the main character actually survives and escapes slavery. I myself am sensitive to sad films– if the film is extremely sad, it just sort of depends whether I feel its warranted or if it is some kind of emotional manipulation. In the case of The Book of Negroes, it is most definitely not emotional manipulation. It is a story inspired by real history, and as a commenter mentioned above, the narrator is exceptional in her ability to always try to learn from her experiences and situations. I do feel justified in my choice of book. I like the suggestion that I get students to write about how they’re feeling and talk about it some more. BTW, the student is very conscientious and thoughtful, which is why her comment made me stop and think.

  12. While doing my undergrad, I was assigned the novel PUSH by Sapphire. It was very graphic and I was very disturbed by it. I would have rather read something else, but having read this book gave me another perspective I would not have considered in the same way I see things now, as far as literature goes. I suppose those who aren’t able read it could opt out, but maybe giving them an alternative that covers the same type of content is a good way to address their reluctance. I have done that in my class when students express their concern over a novel assigned (of my choice). I give them something similar to read, though do discussion with them about the novel they opted not to.

  13. Very high-emotion novels have an upside and a downside. On the upside, for many students they’re compelling which leads to class discussions where at least most of the students have actually read the book — which we cannot always assume has happened! — and where there is little doubt about the conflict that the author is trying to present.

    On the downside, there can be students like the ones described who are threatened by the intensity. When the class is required, we don’t get to ignore that reaction. One solution, I think, is to mentally rate novels on a scale from 1 to 10 for intensity, and avoid those in the 1 category and the 10 category. Actually, I think we as teachers instinctively avoid the too-humdrum novels (yes, they exist) but may not do as good a job of avoiding the too-intense ones. There is always a group of students (though it may be small) who LOVE intensity, and give us positive feedback when we choose intense novels with extreme actions and very outlier personalities for the main characters. They may love it so much that it keeps them from seeing other important features of the novel.

    This solution would work for Siobhan’s previous post on a book that was thought to have too much (or too controversial) sex.

    • A 1-to-10 scale seems very sensible. I’m sometimes surprised, though, by the things students will rate a 10. Years ago, I used Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Ghost World as a required reading, and many of the students HATED it because its depictions of sex were 1. relatively explicit, 2. visual (as opposed to verbal, as a traditional novel would be), and 3. not beautiful. It entirely changed my approach to graphic novels as texts.

      • Well, I would give many novels and especially recent ones a 10 for “too violent.” I have a visceral reaction to depictions of violence even if they are not visual (i.e. novels can be too violent for me just as movies can be). And I would skip book club selections that others in my book club could find OK because I know that the violence will put me off. I actually find the violence, when it’s used as a hook to keep readers interested, to be a big distraction from the writer’s goal, unless the goal is “thrill them with violence.” (same with sex; you can easily tell when a sex scene in a book or movie is there because it’s obligatory!).

        So in my real life, I do avoid extremes, both out of a sense of what I personally can tolerate, but also because the extreme elements seem like a side issue to me. If the class is a literature class, it doesn’t need to try to mimic an abnormal psychology class or a military science class or an anatomy class. There are plenty of great novels that incorporate some violence and some sex, but that don’t go overboard.

        • I have more of a problem with badly written sex and violence. It’s mostly the sex that ends up written badly. It doesn’t matter if it’s erotica or just a sex scene in the middle of whatever novel, it knocks me out of the story if it’s bad. It’s why I knew not to touch 50 Shades with a ten foot pole: that is *not* how BDSM actually works, and I really hope that people aren’t modeling that behavior.

          I do think that extreme violence has a place, though. Take a novel on war for example. If you really want to write about the realities of, say, World War II, you’re not going to gloss over the violence and atrocity. War is violent, bloody, awful stuff.

          I guess I look at it like I look at that photograph of the young girl running naked through the street after getting hit with napalm. Is it uncomfortable to look at it? Yes, and I had a nightmare the first time I saw it. But it lead me to search out the photographer, and then to find the story of how the photograph was made. I guess I value pushing my limits when it comes to this. I learn more about myself.

          So, uh, I guess I would answer the originally posted question with yes.

      • I would just like to say that you rock for using a graphic novel as required reading. So many people think that they’re not relevant as literature, and I get sick of people bashing them for this reason.

  14. I really like the idea of allowing students to rate books, especially thinking of the next group of students who have to choose from a list of books! It’s a great way to get them to think critically and thoughtfully for a built-in audience. I *love* graphic novels (so much so I did a paper ON graphic novels AS a graphic novel once) and I’m sorry to hear Ghost World was such a bust! I also find it interesting that students found the sex too “graphic” and “not beautiful”. That kind of cracks me up a little bit (hey, kids, sex is not like how it looks in the movies! Ha.).

    • Terry: in my current version of the course where I once taught Ghost World, we’re now doing something different. The class has been divided into 8 groups, and each group is reading a different book. Starting next week, each group will present its book to the class and either encourage the other students to choose it as their final reading, or dissuade them from doing so. I love this part of the course, and I swear more of the students do all/most of the reading than in any other course I teach. A description of another version of the same course is here:

  15. Sometimes you don’t really have warnings about the subject in a class.

    I took a women’s lit class I was really excited about. And in only one book out of a dozen had a female protagonist that didn’t end up dead at the end–in many cases by suicide. Or an American Lit class that had some real doozies–like Blood Meridian.

    That being said, college lit students should be fairly tough–literature is full of some dark shadows.

  16. This brings to mind a specific passage in Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, in which he asks you to “try to explain the joy of skiing to somebody living in the tropics who has never even seen snow. There has to be an experience to catch the message, some clue- otherwise you’re not hearing what is being said.”

    The problem is that our society is one of comfort. This is especially applicable to the many university students whose families comprise the socio-economic middle class (as a white, middle class college student, I can speak from the students’ perspective). We scurry about in between air conditioned cars and air conditioned buildings. Our food comes prepared for us, either neatly packaged in the frozen food section or freshly prepared at the local restaurant. It’s not to say they live in a utopia, but it’s safe to assume that they can meet all of their physiological needs rather easily and are not paralyzed by constant hardship. For these students, the book has placed them out of their comfort zones, and they believe that the primary mission of the protagonist is to simply escape from this state discomfort. Through their eyes and the story ends (for all intensive purposes) with Aminata’s return the Sierra Leone.

    Now look at the book from another student’s perspective. This student spent their entire life below the poverty line. Their parents were on welfare and they depended on food stamps to survive. This student comes from a decrepit public school, compensating his poor education with long hours in the library. He is the first in his family to go to college and the only reason he sits in your classroom is because of his diligence and refusal to quit. When he reads this book, he relates the Aminata, using her story as an allegory of his own personal experience. He has been a slave to his condition but has managed to escape. He awaits his college degree with the same eagerness she has to disembark on Sierra Leone. For him the main task of the protagonist is not to simply escape discomfort by returning home, but to keep pressing forward, realizing that freeing her people was more important.

    So with that preface let me answer your question of “what do you think.”

    I think it’s important that teachers and institutions not permit their student to turn a blind eye to what it is to suffer. But more importantly, I think that for every 100 people you hear whining about how uncomfortable it makes them, you inspire one student to overcome their past and make a difference.

    *Full disclosure- I haven’t read this book, but instead looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia.

  17. As a college student I think they should be encouraged to power through. The fact that it strikes your students and makes them feel extreme emotions means the literature is relevant and personal to them, even if it hurts. The hardest thing I’ve had to read in college was a series of short stories written about the people who jumped from the World Trade Towers on 9/11. Before this book I had always clung to the 9-yearold mentality I had when the attack happened. Afterwards I was forced to understand the day as an adult and though it hurt me on a truly helpless and visceral level my perspective has changed and I am grateful for that. My fellow students and I would often complain about it and talk about stopping but all of us made it to the end and are thankful we did.

  18. Jim and Sierra make good points, but I think there is a difference between bringing students into a world they haven’t previously known — which is great and speaks directly to the post above on why reading fiction can broaden our worlds — and using shocking material merely to shock. I’ll use the example of two types of novels that aim to explore the issue of physical fear: Steven Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, and pretty much anything by Steven King. Now, I’m not dissing Steven King; he writes really well. But by generating fear through events that could not happen (or are unlikely to happen), he creates distance between his characters and his readers. There is the thrill of in-your-face violence, but it would be hard to claim that this type of writing takes us closer to understanding the human condition. The events are just too outlier-ish.

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