Using Oroonoko to Teach the Corrosive Effects of Racism
Keywords:Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, teaching race relations, slave society
Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko offers the reader a rich set of examples illustrating the complexities of interracial relationships. Throughout the work, the imperatives of slave society clash with the human desire for friendship, resulting in a series of untenable contradictions for the characters involved. When people, even those of good will, are participants in and beneficiaries of systems that victimize others, they find their friendships complicated and compromised. The work is a powerful text for teaching the conflicting dynamics of race relations in our own times. By having students order the characters in power ranking, plot a power grid of shifting alliances, and carefully examine moral dilemmas faced by the characters, the teacher can get them to see the contortions caused by prejudice and clashing economic interests. Teaching Oroonoko in the safe confines of a literature classroom can also give students training and practice in how to have conversations about race, a skill which they can put to good use when they enter broader society.
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