Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)

“Beloved Guardian” by contemporary American artist Dread Scott

Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her. Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning – that Beloved might leave. That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant – what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life – Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but you 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 happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children.

As we’ve progressed through the Fiction of Relationship course I’m taking, I’ve noticed the books have become more complex in the scope of the relationships they examine. Where we started, we were looking at love relationships, then family relationships, then the social relationship of a community and even the relationship to reality. In this second half of the course, each book has encompassed all of these in interrelated ways. Or maybe, could it be, I’m just reading better, seeing this web of relationships more clearly. That’s the point of classes, isn’t it?

I read Beloved a couple of decades ago, I see now, as a better reader, that I missed it. It isn’t “about” a mother who kills her baby, though that alone makes it the most compelling reading since Jephthah slew his daughter. It isn’t even about slavery, not exactly: it’s about the effects of slavery, what it means to not own your own body, your own child. In this summer that’s been rife with defenses of “common sense” racism, it’s startlingly contemporary. And it’s about a town – not a black town or a white town, just a town – that turns on a jealous pivot against its own, about a woman out of place, and a girl who, just maybe, survives it all.

It’s a novel inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who did in fact kill her child when faced with recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act. But Sethe is not Margaret Garner; there are significant differences in the stories. Garner’s story is told, however, in a contemporary opera by Richard Danielpour, for which Morrison wrote the libretto.

It’s a book too big for a blog post – it may be the biggest book I’ve ever read – so I’m going to focus on three topics: how it fits the core “Fiction of Relationship” concepts Prof. Weinstein has built into his course; the biblical symbolism in the climactic chapter, and how terrifying it was to read it today and recognize attitudes and beliefs from 150 years ago still passing as common discourse.

The Fiction of Relationship

In all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers.… What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.

This is the fundamental evil of slavery. It goes beyond beatings and deprivations, beyond even enforced labor; it’s more than injustice. To not own your own body, to watch your children sold at a whim. Baby Suggs considers Sethe blessed because she had six years with Halle on Sweet Home. Not that they were married, of course; Mrs. Garner’s reaction to the notion of a slave wedding made it clear she saw Sethe and Halle as not really human. I think it’s a requirement: to enslave someone, you must see them as sub-human; to allow human ritual is to acknowledge that you have denied them humanity, to look at what you’ve done. Once the “peculiar institution” (what a benign name for it) was entrenched and relied upon, slaveholders needed to maintain this view, to remove the last vestiges of humanity from the people they enslaved.

[Baby Suggs] Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.
Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?

It’s a bizarre concept, to not have a map of yourself, to see yourself as someone else’s instrument, with no more personal agency than a pencil or a car. When Baby Suggs’ freedom is bought by Halle, she’s hit by a sudden revelation: “These hands belong to me. These my hands.” Then a moment later, she says “My heart’s beating” and is struck by the profound truth of that statement: my heart. How powerful this recognition is – it reminds me of the agnosia Oliver Sacks describes in his 1982 article, “The Leg.” Except agnosia is a medical condition, caused by a brain abnormality; Baby Suggs was, prior to her self-recognition, suffering from a kind of socially imposed agnosia; the institution of slavery mimicked a brain tumor. Now there’s a metaphor.

But just as Baby Suggs has this realization and laughs, as she’s making arrangements for the freedom Halle has bought, her slavemistress asks, “What’s funny, Jenny?” This is magnificent writing, to include this negation of Baby Sugg’s freedom in this scene. “Jenny” is only the name some former “owner” gave her and put on her bill of sale. It’s hard for me in 2013 to get my mind around that: a person having a bill of sale, being named by it. Morrison shows how it works, makes me feel it at a visceral level.

And on that note: I’m always fascinated by naming, both the names an author uses (or chooses to not use), and the acts of naming in a story. After all, the first thing God told Adam to do in the Judeo-Christian creation story was to name the animals. Naming is power. An author must necessarily name characters (or not, but an omitted name becomes its own signal); parents necessarily name children. Those in power name those who are “owned.” As a writer “owns” characters in a story, as parents “own” their children (think how hard it would be to never refer to your kids as “my kids” again), slaveowners named their slaves. One more power symbol, if the chains and bills of sale weren’t enough.

Look at the names in this novel: three Pauls (maybe after the apostle?), interchangeable parts to the slaveowners, yet Sixo, Baby Suggs, Sethe and Halle have real names, their own names; black people invented screen names before white people invented screens. And don’t forget – it’s Morrison who ultimately decided on the names, including the use of “Garner” (remember Margaret Garner, the real-life inspiration for this story?) for the slaveowners – the “good” slaveowners, which is as oxymoronic a phrase as ever existed. It’s great that some slaveowners weren’t overtly cruel. That makes them a little less evil, not good.

But back to naming: Stamp Paid is another character with a fascinating name and a story to go with it:

Born Joshua, he renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master’s son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.… So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. The runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. “You paid it; now life owes you.” And the receipt, as it were, was a welcome door that he never had to knock on…

At another point in the novel, Paul D thinks, “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.” I don’t think it’s by accident that Sixo is one of the characters who has chosen his own name; in fact, even as he is burned alive, Sixo names himself anew – “Seven-o! Seven-o!” (having left behind a pregnant Thirty Mile Woman) – and thus retains ownership of himself, even as the slaveowners murder him. That’s a hard level of hero to reach; I think most of us would come up wanting using that yardstick.

One more note about naming: we never know what Beloved was named at birth. She only became Beloved after she died (and yes, I’ll get to the religious symbolism of that); she must’ve had a name beforehand. When the “new” Beloved arrives, Sethe isn’t shocked by the name; she doesn’t seem to connect the name Beloved with the baby she killed. I’m a bit perplexed by this; I’m hoping the class lectures or discussions will help me sort it out.

Then we have the community relationship, another crucial aspect of the book. The black community in the outskirts of Cincinnati of 1873 is a tricky one, but most communities are in one way or another. This particular community is so essential for survival, that when it turns its back on Baby Suggs out of envy, catastrophe ensues:

She was accustomed to the knowledge that nobody prayed for her – but this free-floating repulsion was new. It wasn’t whitefolks – that much she could tell – so it must be colored ones. And then she knew. Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess….
And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead… to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them, and he’d always believed it wasn’t the exhaustion from a long day’s gorging that dulled them, but some other thing – like, well, like meanness – that let them stand aside, or not pay attention… Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not.

In some ways, this is exactly the same pattern as slavery: a group creates a situation, then points to the situation they’ve created as justification for their behavior. The slaveowners: Look how ignorant these people are, this is why we don’t teach them to read. Look at what an animal this woman who murdered her child is, this is why we treated her like an animal. And now, the community: Look what this woman did. We were right to be suspicious of Baby Suggs that day. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, not exactly; it’s more like the sociological version of backwards causation.

Morrison knew how to work these dehumanization markers into her story seamlessly, so they float by as undercurrents or overtones while we’re looking at something else, paying attention to the story. That’s why it’s such a big book: every sentence has layers of meaning. When Sethe ties her son in the yard by his foot to keep him away from the smoking fire she was required to tend: what does it take for a slave to tie up her child to keep him safe? And how does this relate to her notion of keeping Beloved safe in the terrible, incomprehensible fashion she later uses?

Biblical Symbolism

Whenever I read a story or novel set in a time and place with customs unfamiliar to me, I’m constantly aware of how much I’m missing, how many symbols are floating by that I just can’t recognize because I’m unaware of the significance of, oh, owls as a death motif or the raven as a trickster. But thanks to my misspent youth as a Southern Baptist, I have an advantage when it comes to Christian symbolism.

In the climactic scene in the first chapter of Part III, with its dramatic convergence of multiple unrelated events – Edward Bodwin just happens to be arriving, wearing a hat, to pick up Denver for her first night of work; it just happens to be a dreadfully hot and humid day; Sethe just happens to be hacking at a block of ice to cool down Beloved’s fever; the community just happens to be standing outside Sethe’s house in some kind of exorcism attempt – the Christian allegory flows hot and heavy. It’s a breathtaking chapter just on the face of it, but add in:

~ Thirty women make their way towards 124, echoing the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus. This is, after all, the community that eighteen years prior didn’t warn 124 of the approach of schoolteacher.

~ The scene takes place at three o’clock on a Friday, by tradition often considered the hour and day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

~ Beloved has “vines of hair” all over her head: the crown of thorns.

~ The thirty women from the community fall to their knees in prayer: “They make a hill. A hill of black people falling.” This is the Calvary on which Beloved will again be sacrificed.

~ Beloved was two years old when she was killed; the gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents, also equating death (“going down to Egypt” as well as the literal [in the gospel at least; this event is only mentioned in Matthew, and is widely considered ahistorical] death of thousands of babies two years old and younger) and safety in a horrific way.

~ The name Beloved, present throughout: from the “Dearly Beloved” of a funeral service. But first, there was the gospel of Matthew 3:16-17: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He[a] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.17 And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

~ The baby who is killed doesn’t become Beloved by name until she is buried; she doesn’t become Beloved in the flesh until she is resurrected.

This all starts to circle itself like a snake eating its tail; I’m hoping the week we spend on it in class will help me sort it out a little better, through lectures or discussions. But it’s clear that Christian symbolism, particularly of the crucifixion, plays a pivotal role in the novel, deepening its already overwhelming impact.

Contemporary Reach

What struck me the hardest as I read this novel – published in 1987, set in the mid-19th century – was how contemporary it all was. Not just the themes: the actual scenes and conversations.

Let’s start with something easy: Sethe, Paul D and Denver go to the Carnival. When Paul D first brings it up, Sethe hesitates and says no – she has work, after all – “but even when she said it she was thinking how much her eyes enjoyed looking in his face.” That’s a line out of any current story with a love relationship. Hey, most of us have probably said something like that; some things never change, and some experiences are universal. At the Carnival, Denver starts out playing the ultimate and eternal disaffected teenager: “But Denver was not doing anything to make this trip a pleasure. She agreed to go – sullenly – but her attitude was ‘Go ‘head. Try and make me happy.'” You can’t tell me your teenager hasn’t ever done just that – that we haven’t done just that. This carnival chapter, ending with the shadows holding hands, is one of those moments of total joy in this book. It’s Morrison’s artistry that the story then introduces the resurrected Beloved.

Then we have the much darker contemporary touches.

Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. … it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen of Cincinnati.

Just last night, Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson did an extraordinary satire of the different ways black and white crime is covered. If the piece strikes you as silly, just try substituting the word “black” for “white” and see how it sounds then; I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been lifted nearly sentence-for-sentence from a collection of recent news rants. I wouldn’t have heard about the Huntington Beach riot following a surfing championship if it hadn’t been for this kind of comparative reporting; it wouldn’t have been a big deal out of the local area. Yet had a single black person thrown as much as a wadded up paper ball after the Trayvon Martin verdict, it would’ve been on continuous loop for weeks. And, by the way, the fact that there was absolutely no violence was not widely reported, other than by omission.

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.

I wonder if Morrison wrote this out of her own experience. Any scandal involving a prominent black person automatically becomes about race. In the spirit of the previous satire, I wonder why, in this year of Bob Filner, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer making political comebacks (some more successfully than others) after sexually-related scandals, we aren’t talking about the problem of the white man’s lack of sexual self-control. By the way, no woman in elected office has ever been involved in a sex scandal. I already feel sorry for whoever will be the first one. That’s one glass ceiling nobody wants to be credited with breaking.

[T]he schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined.

And here I reveal my own ignorance: I was surprised to discover “History is written by the victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill (albeit without a specific citation). I’d assumed it went back to ancient Greece. The above quote is Sethe remembering how Sixo explained to schoolteacher why he “stole” a shoat (I learned this from Sixo: a shoat is a baby pig). Maybe this is what all power struggles are about: who gets to write the history, the definitions. Who gets to say what’s a science experiment and what’s a felony. What’s “reasonable” and what isn’t. When lynching became more prosecutable (and the history of lynching extends into the 1950s), you can define a “Stand your Ground” self-defense strategy.

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. 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 every one. 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.

If you don’t believe this is still true – you haven’t been paying attention to how the President of the United States has been treated with unprecedented disrespect and vitriol. And this isn’t just by the anonymous Twitterverse or the unfairly stereotyped “Southern racists.” It was an elected official of the Orange County, CA Republican Party who emailed the President’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee and then denied it was racist. It was the elected mayor of Los Alamitos, CA (again, Orange County; is Orange County they new Mississippi?) who emailed an image of watermelons growing on the White House lawn. A New York gubernatorial candidate emailed, among other things, a photo of the President and First Lady photoshopped as pimp and prostitute. Public racism towards the President has become far more acceptable, as shown by the huge collection of examples put together by blogger Def Shepherd. We see every day where the baboon lies: in all of us, every one. It’s just that it makes a funnier picture when it’s a black face, and those who don’t mind letting the baboon out are willing to exploit that for a laugh.

Part of the power of this book is its ability to reach from slavery and reconstruction all the way to 2013. Morrison has said in several venues that she admired and was influenced by Faulkner; though Beloved covers some of the same ugly territory as Light in August, where I found that book oppressive I find this one urgent and plaintive; where I found his time distortions and jumbled points of view unreadable, I find them poetic here. Scenes of joy are mixed in with those of tragedy; I found villains who could at the same time be heroes; I found an ugliness that could, in its own way, be beautiful, and a beauty that transformed the surrounding ugliness. I found what might be the biggest book I ever read.

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike the ship’s, smooth and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from afar-off place.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they will disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
Beloved.

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