I am 31 years old, an avid reader, was the nerdy kid in English class who always actually read the books assigned, and yet…this is the first of Toni Morrison’s works that I’ve ever read. I’m disappointed in both myself and all the school systems I went through. But it’s never too late to correct a wrong. I’m happy to say that now that I have. And, hopefully, will continue to do so, over the hopefully many years of reading I have left! Also, thanks to The Reading Women Challenge 2020 for the bonus prompt to read a “book by Toni Morrison” that gave me the push to pick this one up rather than continuing to procrastinate.
This modern classic tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave now living in Ohio. In her present day, just after the end of the Civil War, she is living “free,” but followed and weighed down by the memories of her time as a slave at Sweet Home, the trauma of her escape and being hunted down by slave-catchers, and the grief over losing her baby, whose tombstone is engraved with the single word, “Beloved.”
Well, I can see, just after this one work, how Morrison deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Oh my goodness. This was absolutely not an easy read, for multiple reasons. Obviously, the subject matter is difficult, highlighting a time of dehumanization in American history that is emotionally taxing and extremely guilt-inducing to remember. It would be easier not to acknowledge this part of our country’s past…which is why, I am sure, it is sped through in history class (the human aspect is anyways, and the aftermath; the political and “war” perspectives seem given their due time, in my memory) and many English classes, including mine, do not choose books that cover it in detail like this. But also, Morrison’s writing is something really special – dense and a bit intimidating, but in the exact right way for the subject. It was a challenge and yet simultaneously absolutely compelling, the way the language wrapped around me, enveloped, consumed and threatened to drown me. I felt the weight of her words, the weight of the memories they impart on the reader. I could feel, in a legitimately tangible way, the weight of the characters’ memories and pasts and experiences, the ones they couldn’t forget or leave behind, not matter how hard they tried, transferred into my own mind as I read. Spectacular writing, full of palpable tension and pain and profound emotion.
As for the “plot,” Morrison wrote it to unfold over the length of the book. References and comments are made from the very beginning that make you question, knowing that something is off. And the tone of the writing sets that ambiance of mystery and an overshadowing…something…as well. The way that the characters’ stories unfold, in a meandering-through-time sort of way, traveling from present to past and back again, with stops in between, only adds to the build-up. It’s a methodically paced development, that sometimes left me with the feeling that I was missing something (I reread a number of sections, and both listened to the audiobook and referenced the physical text as I went, to try to make sure I didn’t miss anything). Morrison made many glancing comments, many metaphorical statements, many substituted images, to send the message of the truth of events without stating them outright that were, in fact, hard to follow. As the novel went, many of them were explained more; never a lot, but enough to understand without mistaking or miscommunication. But some stayed obtuse or opaque in explanation. This is definitely not a novel to speed read and I could see a reread being very helpful, on this front, as I did feel lost in some sections. And while there is technically a central event that the story revolves around, a choice Sethe made about her children and how best to protect them, this book is less about that event and more about the circumstances that led to Sethe feeling like that was her best option (the idea that she really had any “better” choices under the circumstances being a false reality), the trauma leading up to that moment, the daily struggle to fight against the memories of it all afterwards, and the affect of it on those around Sethe and her interactions with them all as a result. And above all, it is a searing look at and condemnation of not only the inhumanity and humiliation and damage of slavery itself, but also in the racist existence outside of it, from the South to the abolitionist homes/families in the “free North” in the post-Civil War period when slaves were “freed” from technical slavery. This entire period is so often glossed over, as the history of the Black experience in American jumps straight from slavery to the years leading up to and including the Civil Rights movement…disregarding the generations that lived in that in-between time.
There are also a few other themes that this book explores in an affecting way. The biggest, for me, was the look at mother-daughter relationships. The consideration of these relationships under complex conditions that do not allow for the “natural” expression of love and protection between mothers and daughters because there was no control over the circumstances and, even worse, because within that, slave owners and white people in general didn’t view Black people as having the same emotional and developmental capacity for those relationships, in the same way that animals might not have those capacities. The horror of those theories is beyond belief or words. In this novel, Morrison takes those circumstances and plants true mother’s love within them, with the inevitable conclusion that drastic decisions will be made because of a mother’s need to love and protect her children to the best of her ability. It’s terrible, but beautiful at the same time. Along these lines, I have seen some criticism of the book as a ghost story or not, with the “return” of Beloved to Sethe’s life. There are factions that say if she was a ghost, there are holes in the story and things that couldn’t have happened if she were not “real.” And there are others that say she was a regular, normal person and she and Sethe projected onto each other the mother and daughter they both missed and needed. Honestly, I think both make perfect sense and, to take it a step further, I don’t think it matters. Whether Beloved was a ghost in Sethe’s mind, or a real person she latched onto as her returned daughter, the bottom line is that the mother-daughter bond, and the search for it, from those who have lost it, is paramount. Plus, either could be a side effect of wanting or wishing for something so hard that you bring it into existence. And I came away with that message without having to really decide what I thought about Beloved’s state (especially from the couple sections in Part II that were about Beloved but each from a different perspective – Beloved herself, Sethe, and Sethe’s surviving daughter Denver – and those were some of my favorite parts).
There was also quite a bit of time spent on exploring manhood and the affect of slavery on male slaves’ self-identity within the context of what men “should” be and the lack of ability to be that while enslaved. Some of the most graphic scenes of dehumanization (other, of course, than the physical and sexual abuses against the women of this novel) were written to drive this point home. And it plays strongly as we see in the one other surviving Sweet Home slave, Paul D, both as he recounts his experiences after leaving Sweet Home and in the ways that he interacts with and responds to Sethe in their relationship. It’s heartbreaking in a way that is not always elucidated in literature, as for some reason, it seems to be easier and far more popular to write about abuses against women. And it was just as hard to read, and just as important to show, as the rest.
This novel is haunting and powerful and heavy and shows the pervasive intergenerational affects of trauma as invasive and all-encompassing as slavery was. Morrison holds no punches in the truth-telling of these pages, and it feels oppressive and overwhelming as a reader. And yet, she is able to suffuse a softness into it, with her language, that eases the pain without diminishing the end effect. It’s a transcendent piece of art and writing and remembering and reverence.
There were too many quotes and passages in here that I wanted to transcribe. Here are a selection, or maybe a slight transcribing of the whole novel, whoops:
“Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”
“None of them knew the downright pleasure of enchantment, of not suspecting but knowing the things behind things.”
“For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.”
“But her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day.”
“Working dough. Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past.”
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
“There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.”
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
“It was lovely. Not to be stared at, not seen, but being pulled into view by the interested, uncritical eyes of the other.”
“Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer.”
“And when she stepped foot on free ground she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath, knew that there was nothing like it in this world. It scared her.”
“Each seemed to be helping the other two stay upright, yet every tumble doubled their delight. The live oak and soughing pine on the banks enclosed them and absorbed their laughter while they fought gravity of each other’s hands. Their skirts flew like wings and their skin turned pewter in the cold and dying light.”
“A hobnail casket of jewels found in a tree hollow should be fondled before it is opened. Its lock may have rusted or broken away from the clasp. Still you should touch the nail heads, and test its weight. No smashing with an ax head before it is decently exhumed from the grave that has hidden it all this time. No gasp at a miracle that is truly miraculous because the magic lies in the fact that you knew it was there for you all along.”
“After sixty years of losing children to the people who chewed up her life and spit it out like a fish bone; after five years of freedom given to her by her last child, who bought her future with his, exchanged it, so to speak, so she could have one whether he did or not – to lose him too; to acquire a daughter and grandchildren and see that daughter slay the children (or try to); to belong to a community of other free Negroes – to love and be loved by them, to counsel and be counseled, protect and be protected, feed and be fed – and then to have that community step back and hold itself at a distance – well, it could wear out even a Baby Suggs, holy.” (This is it all, all piled up, in it’s unbearable reality.)
“Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose.” (And still in 1987 when this was written, and still today in 2020…)
“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
“Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. […] …if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her.”
“…he believed the undecipherable language clamoring around the house was the mumbling of the black and angry dead. Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You needed two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them everyone. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.” (SO POWERFUL.)
“‘But you said there was no defense.’ / ‘There ain’t.’ / ‘Then what do I do?’ / ‘Know it, and go on out the yard. Go on.’”
“That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or main 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.”
“Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.”
“That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got.”
“‘…me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’”