Beloved is about slavery, slavery in the US. It is about the terrible things that were done to enslaved people. It is about the damage that was wrought on them before ‘emancipation’ (1863) and after. It is about physical damage, but also economic damage and psychic damage, damage to relationships and to communities. This was lasting harm, for individuals, their descendants and for American society, up to and including today.
The harm done by slavery disrupts the narration of the story of Sethe and her family. It is mutilated, and so like all readers, like the characters in the story, I had to make some kind of sense from the turbulent events. It starts with the rage that was evident in the present time of the story (1873-4), returning later with the arrival of Beloved. The novel opens in rage:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old – as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). (3)
After slavery ended (1873-4):
The novel is set in the time of the so-called reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. Eighteen years earlier Sethe had escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky (oh the irony of the name) over the river to Cincinnati to join her mother-in-law. Slave Catchers arrived to return Sethe to the plantation with her children. She killed her 2 year old child and was prevented from killing the other children. By the time the story starts only the now grown up new-born lives with Sethe: Denver, a recluse.
Things change when Paul D, a former slave also from Sweet Home, arrives at the house. He throws out the baby’s ghost and the three of them settle down to live together. Then another young woman arrives claiming to be Beloved, the name of the murdered child, and more chaos ensues.
I find myself asking how many ways can people be damaged? There is the physical damage. On Sethe’s back are the scars of whippings, which she calls her tree. There is the economic damage. None of the Black characters find it easy to get work. The psychic damage is revealed in Paul D’s case by the tobacco tin, sealed inside are his memories of which he cannot speak. And then there are the wild dreams of Beloved, dreams that evoke the terrors of the Middle Passage and routine rape of female slaves. There is damage to relationships, the most shocking of which is Sethe’s killing of her own baby.
[Sethe knew] That anybody white would take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work in the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. (295-6)
This is not an easy book to read. But the salvation, such that it is, will come from the community made by the neighbours in Cincinnati who look out for Sethe and her loved ones.
“They don’t know when to stop”: Publication 1987
When this book was published the US had been through yet more difficult times. In the previous decades the KKK still operated, Black children were still being killed in churches, Martin Luther King Jnr had been assassinated and Civil Rights Acts passed. I am reminded of the last words of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother whose freedom from slavery had been bought by her son’s labour.
Baby Suggs grew tired, went to bed and stayed there until her big old heart quit. Except for the occasional request for color she said practically nothing – until the afternoon of 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 whitepeople. “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. (122-3).
Toni Morrison was influenced by both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. In the Foreword to the Vintage edition she says that she had just decided to live off her earnings as a writer and given up her job when the idea of the book came to her:
I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what “free” could possibly mean to women. (x)
While collecting material for The Black Book, Toni Morrison had come across the true story of Margaret Garner, who in 1856 killed her own child rather than allow it to return to slavery. She was drawn to this material.
The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellent landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts. (xi)
And she writes of the need to reveal the vocal ghosts, to unsilence their voices and the memories of that awful time.
I hoped … that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. (xiii)
I find these statements powerful and attractive, full of good purpose and her intentions for the novel fulfilled.
The present day
Toni Morrison was born in 1931 and died in August 2019. She had been given countless awards and her writing remains highly regarded. She wrote 11 novels for adults and some for children. Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997) complete the trilogy begun with Beloved.
Beloved continues to be relevant today. The struggles in the US to accommodate their history continues, evident in both the Black Lives Matter campaign and in the attempted coup by a mob of white-supremacist Americans on the Capitol on 6th January 2021.
And in the UK we have our own history of slavery and the slave trade to come to terms with. Do we need an equally powerful novel to help us see our history?
My thanks to Dr Kasia Boddy for her lecture on Beloved hosted by Literature Cambridge in January 2021.
Beloved by Toni Morrison, first published in 1987. I used the Vintage edition published in 2010. 324pp