Except for an occasional request for color [Baby Suggs] said practically nothing––until the afternoon of the the last day of her life when she got out of bed, skipped slowly to the door of the keeping room and announced to Sethe and Denver the lesson she had learned from her sixty years a slave and ten years free: that there was no bad luck in the world but white people. “They don’t know when to stop,” she said, and returned to her bed, pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever.
Toni Morrison is an author who has been on my radar for a long time, but despite using the Nobel Prize for Literature to build a reading list and wanting to diversify my intake I have always found reasons to read something else instead. I have struggled with a lot of books set in the American south, for one, and her books just didn’t seem to be my speed––whatever that means, these are excuses. Morrison’s recent passing inspired me to rectify this oversight.
Beloved is a novel of two places, each with two phases, linked by Sethe––wife, mother, slave, freedwoman, murderer.
124 is the first place, once a refuge for former slaves outside Cincinnati and now where Sethe and her daughter Denver live with the ghosts.
The second place is Sweet Home, a bucolic plantation where Sethe had been a slave before fleeing with her family.
Two arrivals shake 124 from its dismal, spiteful routine. First comes Paul D, a man who had been a slave with Sethe at Sweet Home years past. Second comes the ethereal Beloved, a young woman who seems to have appeared out of the Ohio River. With each arrival Sethe gets further lost in the world of memory. Paul D reminds her of Halle, the father of her children and chosen husband, and of Sweet Home. Beloved, who Sethe associates with her dead baby with “beloved” carved on its headstone,” reminds her of the trauma of 124.
The main thread of Beloved begins in 1873, eight years after the end of the Civil War and longer since Sethe gained her freedom, but this is very much a novel about the lasting impact of slavery. The older women of 124 (Sethe and Baby Suggs, her husband’s mother) physically wear the carry the marks on their bodies, yes, but how Morrison writes the psychological scars is what sets this novel apart.
The most obvious example of these scars––and one that only deepens as the novel progresses––is Sethe’s decision to kill her infant her former owners track her down. This is obviously *the* central scene to the book, but smaller moments were equally revelatory. Some are expected having read about slavery in the United States. Racism from abolitionists, broken and lost families, casual sexual violence (albeit not from an expected angle). Others were less expected, such as Baby Suggs’ preoccupation with color once she is free and realizes she is allowed to have opinions about such things or the disconnect between the names the white slave owners use and the names that the enslaved people want to have.
What stood out most to me, though was how Sethe and Paul D remember Sweet Home.
Sweet Home is repeatedly referred to in glowing terms. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The Garners, the original owners of the plantation, are generally remembered positively. They treat their slaves well, never beating or raping them, valuing their skills and opinions, and even arming the men to let them hunt. They don’t force Sethe into a sexual relationship, but allow her to have one with the man of her choosing and allow Halle (that man) to hire out his services so that he can purchase his mother’s freedom.
The Garners’ benevolence stands out because, after Mr. Garner’s death, a relation known as Schoolteacher takes over management. His opinion is that the Garners have been too lenient, and begins beating the slaves, restricting their movements, and employing any number of implements, including semi-sexual violations. Saying Sweet Home turned sour understates the toxicity of the change and underscores the depths of horror that slavery enabled.
But Morrison also uses this island of blessed tranquility to demonstrate the grotesqueness of slavery. Even with impossibly benevolent owners, slavery dehumanized the enslaved. Within the confines of Sweet Home the owned had a dim shadow of freedom, but they are isolated and still living their lives for the benefit of their owners. Whatever goodness the Garners have is forfeit by their participation in this system.
Beloved is not necessarily a book written with me, a white man, in mind. I frequently like a voyeur even while I was swept away by the power of Morrison’s prose or was caught by a turn of phrase that made me reread a sentence, paragraph or page. Yet, this discomfort is exactly the reason that people like me ought to read this book. Morrison simultaneously breaths life into the expected jagged wounds of American history and upends any usual assumptions.
If the purpose of literature is to liberate us from our own experience and build empathy, Morrison succeeds in spades. Beloved is spectacular and deserving of every accolade it won.
I have been snowed under for the past two weeks with the start of the fall semester and have for the most part chosen to read rather than write here. In this stretch, and speaking of discomfort, I have finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which is a powerful look at her weight and am now making my way through Eric Rauchway’s Winter War, which is a really well-written look at the political gamesmanship between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt between the 1932 election and Roosevelt’s inauguration.