'Beloved' Is Still a Testament to the Black Spirit
Thirty years later, the book still has the capacity to cut to the heart of the pain and pride of the black experience in America.
Lia Kantrowitz/Getty Images
In January 1856, a young black woman named Margaret Garner killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife, wounded her two other children, and was prepared to kill herself to avoid being sold back into slavery. There is no known plaque that commemorates Margaret's life, no public artifact that seeks to remember the desperate actions she took to retain some form of autonomy over her persecuted black life and that of her kin. In 1987, over a century and a half after her act of self-reclamation, American author Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, a novel inspired by Garner.
Beloved went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature and solidified Morrison's place alongside, if not in front of, the likes of Tolstoy, Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Salinger—writers revered for their ability to capture the fullness, vibrancy, and complexity of life. What sets Beloved apart is its dedicated and intentionally persistent focus on the vulnerability and strength of black motherhood, in the midst of unimaginable violence and depravity.
From the moment black feet unwillingly made footprints on US soil, white America has remained steadfast in its refusal to treat black bodies as people deserving of life, love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Black women have remained tethered to a constitutionally protected star-spangled noose that allows them to move a few steps forward, but then yanks them back when they try to go even farther. Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, and the novel's namesake, Beloved, were the literary conduits who put a face to the pain of black women living in a white America, a pain that was not rendered obsolete by the pyrrhic victory of the American Civil War.
These characters had lived in a slave America and, at the beginning of the book, found themselves existing in a supposedly slave-free United States. The war had been fought and victory acquired, but what kept the women imprisoned wasn't simply physical chains, but the psychological torture that reminded them of the horrors they had endured, and those they knew for certain could harm them in the future.
Beloved offered readers a pain that was fragile, layered, and constant. In an interview, Morrison talked about having to inhabit Garner's mind so as to be able to deliver a story (through Sethe) that could attempt to evoke the pain Garner experienced and the reality that led to her committing what she saw as an act of insurrectionary mercy, but which many viewed as unforgivable. So many of the atrocities attached to slavery cannot be simplified or encased in language to make them understandable. Slavery was as anti-human as anything can possibly be: denying people mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and homes. Such pain cannot be translated into words. Beloved succeeded not because Morrison aptly described that which could not be explained but because she centered the suffocating fear of the unknown felt by people who were never certain if they would live long enough to see tomorrow.
Beloved is devoid of the perpetual martyrdom that consistently trails stories of black people who have survived through white anger and are required to practice forgiveness so as to ease white guilt and reaffirm white goodness. Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, and Beloved did not have time to think of forgiveness nor did they ever want to. They just wanted to live, as all black people do. In the first chapter, Sethe painfully finds herself wondering what she could have been, had she not been at the mercy of another:
"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?"
Morrison captured the emotions felt by people who had never been allowed to be individuals. She also showed the self-censure they subject themselves to when it came to loving without equivocation. For black people, loving something fully meant profound pain when those "without skin" were done with you. Paul D, one of the male characters, cautioned his heart to "love small." As a black person, to love a woman, a child, a brother was "a big love," and one which would "split you wide open."
Paul D begged Sethe to not love hard—not because he was a coward, but because he was a realist who knew that black people could never truly lose themselves in a soul-churning, overwhelming kind of love. Black women could never offer their loved ones a big love because black skin would always signal violence. To hear Paul D's warning, via Morrison's pen, means remembering Mamie Till's big love. Remembering Myrlie Evers Williams big love. Remembering Dominika Stanley's big love. Geneva Reed-Veal's big love. And Diamond Reynold's big love. Beloved showed the world that living as a black woman was hard, and loving was even harder.
The duality of survival instinct versus survivors guilt haunted these four characters. The memories they could not escape reminded them of the things they had done to survive and simultaneously tormented them for being the ones who were able to get out. They had to convince their own selves and those around them, that whatever they had done to escape slavery was for their personal good, and did not reduce them to the vile level of their tormentors.
In 1987, Morrison transported readers to 1865, so they could bear witness to the conflicted guilt and relief felt by those who made it free. Thirty years later, her words also force readers to bear witness to the story of Felicia Sanders, one of the few survivors in the Charleston church shooting who watched Dylann Roof put five bullets into her son, while she held onto her 11-year-old granddaughter. Morrison's Beloved was a memorial to Margaret Garner's pain, but it also gave a language to the sorrow that would be continuously felt by black people living in white America who dared to love big. People like Felicia Sanders.
Beloved gave a voice to the never-ending cycle of black grief, as felt by the "60 million and more" remembered in the dedication, by the nine that prayed in a church, by the one selling single cigarettes outside a store, and by the one walking down the street with skittles.
Beloved centered blackness outside the hollow, shallow confines of whiteness, allowing black people to recognize their hurt—to speak their suffering and to understand that although lifeless black bodies would line the life path so many of us embark on, our own selves would always remain our best thing. (One exchange: "You your best thing Sethe. You are." "Me?")
Beloved proved that our beating hearts would be the testament to our spirits. Though broken and weary, we continued to know the scent of freedom, even when it seemed we were born never having taken a free breath—that we were more prepared for dying than living. Beloved showed black people that they would always be loved. Thin love, big love, half love. Black bodies are beloved.
Follow Tari Ngangura on Twitter.