Toni Morrison in 2009.
In 1856 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a slavemaster and several federal marshals were closing in on fugitive slaves. Margaret Garner and her family had tasted freedom, and now, trapped, they faced a bitter return to lives as simple property. So, as the slave catchers converged, Margaret Garner slit her two-year-old daughter’s throat, killing her.
This haunting premise inspired Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, Beloved. Released in 1987, Beloved fictionalized Garner as a woman who sags under the emotional trauma of her horrific past as a slave—the rape, the torture, the loss of humanity—and the enormous maternal responsibility of providing for her surviving child. She has escaped slavery for good, but her back is knotted in a tree of scars, her mother and some of her children lost forever, and her house haunted by the vindictive ghost of the daughter she killed.
“[Sethe] was trying to be a parent and a mother and have something to say about her children's lives in a slave system that said to blacks, 'You are not a parent, you are not a mother, you have nothing to do with your children,'” Morrison revealed an interview with The New York Times (1). When Sethe was enslaved, her children were not hers—she could not protect them from harm, could not shelter and provide for them as maternal instinct urged her to do. Her beautiful children, her most prized belongings, belonged less to her than to her owners.
Even Sethe’s own body she cannot claim; she reveals that her master’s sons raped her for the practice. Other slave mothers in the story were stolen from, forced to breastfeed white babies while their own children went hungry. So when Sethe becomes free, she becomes even more protective and fearful for her surviving daughter, Denver. Though at first unable to separate her own identity from Denver’s, throughout the course of the novel, Sethe learns to exist as her own person, caring for herself as well as she does for others.
For Paul D, another former slave character, enslavement left him feeling animalized—chipping away at his identity and leaving lasting psychological trauma. His former life of subservience inhibited him from enjoying a new, full life as a free man. At one point chained and collared like a dog, Paul D struggles with his manhood, since he spent the first quarter of his life with no real agency, completely bound by the will of his master. After great tribulation, he overcomes personal difficulty to make a full commitment to life with Sethe:
"Sethe," he says, "me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow."
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. "You your best thing, Sethe. You are." His holding fingers are holding hers.
Beloved is first and foremost about identity—black identity, maternal identity, identity within a community and within a family. The novel demonstrates slavery’s knack for ripping identity to shreds, leaving the characters traumatized: left either emotionless or utterly ravaged by emotion, suffocating and locking the hurt away in an attempt to heal. They struggle inwardly due to their suffering disgusting abuse at the hands of their former owners, or left haunted by what their ancestors endured.
I have now read several of Toni Morrison’s books: Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved. Each is richly, distinctly Morrison, but carries a weight and gravity entirely its own. Like Morrison’s other novels, Beloved offers an ever-fascinating and, somehow, completely fresh and unprecedented look at blackness in America.
Morrison paints language in colorful, dreamy explosions of emotion—pain, beauty, tenderness, bitterness, and sorrow—and leaves the reader with a bittersweet taste in the mouth. Beloved is nothing short of gorgeous. The prose flows like water, powerful and submerging. You will have to read sentences over and over, break them apart and assemble them anew, savoring every word.
Beloved is required reading for anyone who wants to be challenged and moved on ideas of race, of love, and personal identity. The novel is chock-full of inhumanity and suffering, but to endure that is to endure one shred of what millions of real Americans faced hundreds of years ago. If you’re short on time, at least do yourself the favor of watching the film adaptation, which stars Oprah Winfrey as Sethe. Gripping, weighty, and at times terrifying, the film does an exceptional job of capturing Morrison’s original vision. If it did not succeed in this respect, it’d be a disservice. Read Morrison’s tale for Black History Month, read it for life. Beloved is a masterpiece.
Rockefeller is an Undeclared Freshman.
PC: L. Buscacca/WireImage.com