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Lucy McKeon: Sixty Million and More: Toni Morrison’s Beloved

October 2, 2012

Banned Books Week: This year, one Michigan school district tried to keep Morrison’s haunting narrative out of the classroom. A writer explores how Baby Suggs and Beloved teach us what we don’t learn in school.

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Image from Shutterstock
By Lucy McKeon

After I finished Beloved for the third time, Baby Suggs, holy, came to me in a dream. She didn’t introduce herself, but I knew it was her: the matriarch and unchurched preacher who sang the joyous gospel of black self-love in the Clearing behind 124 Bluestone Road.

Suggs entered my body as a spirit and offered, gruffly, to “engage in conversation.” I would ask a question and she would respond through my own hands, which scribbled out her answers frantically, a somewhat hostile motion that made my dream-heart race. Still, I felt flattered at her willingness. The next morning, my waking self, annoyed with my dream-self for asking what I hazily remembered to be circumstantial rather than philosophical questions, felt I’d misused the opportunity.

All that I could remember of her answers were that they involved contextualizing a set of interpersonal events within the history of systemic racialized oppression. It felt something like a supernatural lesson in institutionalized racism. I was humbled and aware of my whiteness, embarrassed to put the burden of teaching onto her once again, as I had when reading her story. And yet, like a student so urgently needing insight she risks the shame of ignorance, I was glad I’d asked.

These topics are labeled as inappropriate, as if to ignore the interplay between race, sex, gender and power saves 18-year-olds from experiencing it.

My journal of that time says I was in the middle of a “serious Toni Morrison phase,” and it’s a phase I have yet to come out of. I’d just read Sula and Song of Solomon and felt cracked open to new ways of reading, of seeing. I became resolutely willing to work all my life to do myself what Morrison did—to become, as convincingly and powerfully, as much my own self as she seemed to be her own.

Having narrowly escaped slavery and death as a pregnant runaway, Sethe—the main character of Beloved—finally arrives at 124, the house of her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. Suggs’s freedom was bought with her son Halle’s labor, a transaction that keeps Halle around Sweet Home (the farm where they’d been enslaved) long enough to witness something too terrible to remember with sanity. He never makes it to 124.

We hear Sethe’s story through the voice of an omniscient narrator who assumes the linguistic style and local jargon of the characters, slipping masterfully into free indirect discourse to enter their minds, most frequently Sethe’s. The reader learns the family’s history slowly, often by way of real-time storytelling, as the characters themselves discover things about each other they never knew.

“Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay,” says Sethe, describing “rememory,” a concept employed by many characters throughout the novel: the idea of revisiting, often literally bumping into, a memory that occupies the place where it occurred for all eternity.

“Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real,” Sethe explains, accepting as her fulltime occupation the keeping of her daughter, Denver, from “the past that was still waiting for her.” With her other baby girl murdered and two scarred sons run off, a dark murmuring settles over 124 and Sethe’s life becomes one “day’s serious work of beating back the past.”

The ghost of the murdered baby haunts 124 with pranks, spite, and sorrow. We discover in pieces why this ghost hangs on, and why Sethe is so invested in the haunting. This spirit is the specter of slavery, too, a manifestation of the inexpressible damage slavery has done to one woman, to one family, to the South and both races—to the nation.

Though I didn’t then feel the entirety of its spiritual weight, my first reading of Beloved, in high school, laid an emotional and historical groundwork I’ve grown to understand more with time: what I wasn’t learning in history classes, I was absorbing through Morrison. By the time I was in college, historians and writers like Howard Zinn and Patricia Hill Collins would fill in the blanks, connecting the dots between what had happened then and what was happening now. But Beloved was the framework to which my mind would always return.

The novel paints a portrait of American slavery not generally taught. Historians like Eugene Genovese emphasize the geographical and temporal variety that existed within American slavery, despite the simplified, popular image of the enormous Gone With The Wind-style plantation. In “1860 roughly half the slaves in the South lived on farms of twenty or fewer slaves,” Genovese writes. “In short, the typical house slave worked either on a small farm or, at best, on a moderate-sized plantation.” Sweet Home shows a different kind of slavery than we’re used to, one in which the enslaved-master relationship is more complicated and freedom is defined beyond the material. After Sethe has escaped, whether she is free and what she might be free from is hard to understand.

That the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel could be challenged in 2012, as it was in a Michigan high school AP English class just this past January, is incredible. (It was challenged on the basis that the sex, violence and language it contained was “gratuitous” and that, based on an index measuring word- and sentence-length, it was not complex enough for 12th graders.) The text was retained after parents protested and the ACLU intervened, requesting the school to respect the constitutional rights of students. But Beloved has frequently been banned, most recently from a Louisville, Kentucky AP English class in 2008 and it ranks number 26 on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-09.

It’s a strange book to feel at home with. The comfort in returning to it makes for a conflicted homecoming. For me, the book is itself a haunted home.

Books are most often banned in schools and school libraries, according to the ALA, for “sex, profanity, and racism.” These topics are labeled as inappropriate, as if to ignore the interplay between race, sex, gender and power saves 18-year-olds from experiencing it. These high-schoolers will co-create the future of a country whose history, muffled or not, cries out. Banning based on the idea that reading about racism is inappropriate might seem misguided or insane—a misplaced squeamishness that punishes critical analysis, or a magical thinking that believes that to ignore is to cure. Beloved’s banning may instead be a direct challenge to how it represents slavery.

The banning of Morrison’s novel runs parallel to what is an informal but national censorship: the collective banning – inexplicit or subconscious, yet willful – of engaging with the complex history of American slavery. It is what critic Salamishah Tillet calls “the purposeful and polite amnesia around slavery.” And it goes hand-in-hand with an unwillingness to see the apparitions of lingering inequality and racial tension that surround us today.

In her 2012 “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination,” Tillet explores how contemporary African American representations of slavery challenge and revise the national narrative of black racial inequality. Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory” was influential to Tillet’s contextualization of novels like Beloved within the tradition of the slave narrative – the print origin for black American literature. Morrison’s description of her fiction as a synthesis of memory and imagination – a break from original slave narratives, which kept their subjects from fully exploring their interior lives – rejects the plausibility of a claim to any mythical “objectivity.”

The narratives of men like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass often included documents or prefaces (by white people) attesting to the texts’ authenticity. They were also subject to the literary conventions of the time, Morrison explains, which avoided horrific description. (Henry Box Brown writes, “I am not about to harrow the feelings of my readers by a terrific representation of untold horrors of that fearful system of oppression.”) The slave narrative aimed to represent one slave’s actual life as exemplary of the race, and to persuade the (white) reader of the justice of the abolitionist cause.

The distance between the antebellum and the contemporary period, Tillet argues, affords artists like Morrison the opportunity for postmodern experimentation with content and form in their creation of what Tillet calls the “neo-slave narrative.” In Sites of Slavery, Morrison explores how artists use multiple cultural forms beyond the novel to “engage in rituals of collective remembering, recuperative forms of recognition, and revisionist forms of historical representation.”

In Beloved, Morrison adds imagination to historical fact to give Sethe a complexity of emotional, sexual, and intellectual interiority long denied to black women in the realm of popular representation. The character is based on Margaret Garner, an actual woman we know to have committed an act that to many is unimaginable. But little is known of her mind. “So I would invent her thoughts,” Morrison writes in her foreword, “plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s place.’”

What kind of love can exist when it’s proven to you—over and over again—that love is a liability?

The fourth time I read Beloved, the seclusion of the century-old cabin in which I sat, coupled with the book’s by now utter familiarity, catapulted me back and away to 1873 Cincinnati. Ghosts are more real outside of New York City. Lifting my gaze from the page out onto the water, my real life shrank away in proportion to my page-turning time traveling. It’s a strange book to feel at home with. The comfort in returning to it makes for a conflicted homecoming. For me, the book is itself a haunted home.

One day, the spirit of the murdered baby materializes as an eerie teenager found waterlogged on the porch of 124, a strange girl who calls herself Beloved (taken from the preacher’s funeral sermon, “Dearly Beloved…”: the only word Sethe could afford for the dead baby’s gravestone). Beloved adores Sethe and devours her stories about life at Sweet Home, which “amazed Sethe (as much as it pleased Beloved) because every mention of her past life hurt. Everything in it was painful or lost. She and Baby Suggs had agreed without saying so that it was unspeakable.” But as Sethe tells Beloved more, “she found herself wanting to, and liking it. Perhaps it was Beloved’s distance from the events itself, or her thirst for hearing it—in any case it was an unexpected pleasure.”

We move seamlessly in and out of Sethe’s thoughts, most poignantly upon realizing who Beloved really is —her own child, whom Sethe murdered herself when schoolteacher (formerly her master) came to collect her and her runaway brood.

Sethe’s act of murder —which she describes as commanded by love, the desperate to keep Beloved free from her past —demonstrates in extreme the paradox of a mother’s love within the toxic system of slavery (“…very risky. 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”). She’s been disowned, alienated from the outside world, judged even by Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men, who “counts her feet” when he learns the truth, comparing her to the beast she’d been judged to be by whitepeople for years.

As Sethe finally recognizes Beloved as her lost child, we enter each of the three women’s minds in consecutive chapters, first Sethes’, then Denver’s. By the time Beloved speaks, the haunting imagery and absence of punctuation echo Morrison’s foreword: “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”

The three women lock themselves inside 124 and lose themselves in an intimate, insular nest. It’s magical at first, an affirmation of female love and friendship. What does it mean to feel beloved? What does it feel like not to know? How is love experienced by a mother, daughter, sister, by a psyche trapped in a world that insists on your social death? What kind of love can exist when it’s proven to you—over and over again—that love is a liability?

Soon after the initial bliss things sour. Denver, excluded from Sethe and Beloved’s all-consuming game of give-and-take, is forced into the outside world for the first time in her life to seek help.

When slavery kept knowledge from the disempowered, literacy was a testament to humanity. The original slave-narratives insistently embody this fact. Beloved helps Sethe to confront her past through storytelling, and Morrison’s project transforms the oral to written. But Sethe’s narrative creation goes too far. Beloved is insatiable and Sethe finally cannot appease her with explanation for her deed. Language is necessary, but at a certain point, insufficient.

Morrison’s neo-slave narrative works as a kind of “rememory” that goes beyond the authentic testament of the slave narrative, a form of memory where language, eventually, gets in the way. Recovery is important, and the repetition, recitation, and retelling in Beloved is a haunting process that is healing but, when all-encompassing and isolating, can become detrimental. Morrison provides a future, not only for Denver, but for Sethe too. By the end, Paul D asks Sethe to build a life with him: “’Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’”

There is a balance necessary when revisiting the past, especially a past as irreconcilable as American slavery. There is no understanding that can be reached to account for the Sixty Million and more estimated to have died in the trade and institution of American slavery. “This is not a story to pass on,” repeats the last chapter of Beloved, telling us that eventually the town forgets Beloved “like a bad dream.”

The town forgets, but we can’t. Not without feeling something “beyond [our] knowing…the glare of an outside thing that embraces while it accuses.” We can’t forget without wrestling the “rememory” we bump into on the way.


Lucy McKeon is a New York-based freelance writer and photographer.

Check out the rest of our Banned Books Week series:


Interviews

Sherman Alexie interviewed by Ed Winstead

Katherine Paterson interviewed by Nicole Deming

Alice Walker interviewed by Megan Labrise

Essays

James M. Decker on Henry Miller

Nathaniel Rich on Mikhail Bulgakov

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