One of America’s most prophetic artistic voices has left us. I am speaking, of course, of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison’s passing last week at the age of 88 years. She was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, living American writers. And she is the writer whose voice is so needed for this deeply fractured cultural moment.
Her 1987 novel Beloved, in particular, is a novel that every American should read, must read to prompt us into taking vulnerable, embodied steps towards truly loving our neighbors as ourselves. Morrison guides us in this process, enabling us to imaginatively identify and participate in one of America’s personal and collective formative traumas. Beloved is the great American contemporary novel that shows us the importance of telling the American story—the painful, tragic context in which we see the formation of “black” and “white” Americas—what MLK referred to as the “Two Americas.”
Beloved is based loosely on a historical news clipping account of the tragic events of the life of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner. In an act of fierce love and protection, Garner cut the throat of her infant daughter to prevent her from being taken back into slavery by an abusive slave-owner. In the retelling of this event, Morrison aspires to explore the interior world of this woman that she—or anyone—knows little about. In the process of telling the story of Margaret Garner, who Morrison names “Sethe” in the novel, we are introduced to the cruel institution that formed Sethe’s bruised and battered psyche.
The novel also serves as a memorial to the “Sixty million and more” Africans and African Americans as it imagines the disorientation, pain, chaos, and confusion of their brutal diasporic experiences. This myriad of voices that we never heard, that history has forgotten (or more accurately, never knew) has not been memorialized in America until very recently.
I was first introduced to Beloved in a UK graduate school class focusing on cultural representations of trauma, and our professor rightfully asked why the US had erected a museum memorializing the victims of the Holocaust but not done the same for the African diaspora. I had never thought about this before, and the question began to shift my entire understanding of the American story.
In the story of the Holocaust, Americans were the heroes; in the story of US chattel slavery, we are the villains. Highlighting—or even honestly confronting—the abuse, genocide, and religious hypocrisy that was so integral to the building of the nation does not uphold the myth of American exceptionalism that so many white Americans have collectively inherited.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in Between the World and Me:
“America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error…there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.”
To look too closely at our past would force us to give up the myth.
Beloved is not the first or the only powerful, artful, and truthful work of African American literature that opens a window into the often untold stories of our racial history; Morrison is one in a long line of prophetic truth-tellers, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. But Beloved is perhaps the most important, compelling, and transformative in the list of great African American novels because Morrison purposefully uses the novel’s narrative form itself to not only show us the harrowing, silenced past but to force us into a space of painful participation. It is a disorienting, difficult novel.
The novel opens in the present day emotional and spiritual chaos of house number 124 and its inhabitants: mother Sethe, daughter Denver, and the ghost that Sethe tells us is not “evil but sad.” As the narrative proceeds, the reader must work hard to piece together the jagged fragments of Sethe’s chaotic interior world. In the novel’s introduction, Morrison briefly explains the reasoning behind the placing her readers in an uncomfortable position upon entering the narrative:
“There would be no lobby into this house, and there would be no ‘introduction’ into it or the novel. I wanted to reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population—just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation or defense.”
In an interview with author Roxanne Gay, Morrison explains that one of the aspects she liked the best about her own writing was her perpetual “desire to give the reader space.” All good literature, to some extent, gives readers “space” with which to imaginatively identify—but Morrison’s experimental narrative style forces us to become invested in piecing together a narrative, echoing the traumatized efforts of the novel’s characters to collect the fractured pieces of their stories. Beloved violently and lovingly shows more than explains the results of trauma on the human psyche, and in the process, helps the readers to understand their own bruised minds (a good friend of mine told me that she had not understood that she had been abused as a child until she read Beloved).
It is very important to note that Morrison’s primary intended audience was the African American community. She frequently illustrates the psychologically damaging effect of what WEB Dubois deemed the “double consciousness” of the African diaspora. According to Dubois, African Americans cannot identify with Africa, which has not been their home culture, or with America, a land that hates them as human beings, valuing them only as workhorses. One tragic result of this split, rootless, and stolen identity is the African American’s indoctrination to view his or her value through the eyes of white America. Morrison’s writing confronts and challenges this, reclaiming black identity and highlighting its beauty and complexity.
Although Morrison’s writing is written for a black audience, it has also enabled many white readers to create their own space for empathy by encountering and even participating in the lived experience of African Americans. Not only this, but Morrison’s depiction of trauma reflects some very universal human reactions: fight, flight, or fawning.
In his very important work on racial trauma, therapist Resmaa Menekam explains that both black and white America, the oppressed and the oppressor, experience a sort of inherited trauma and respond accordingly. For instance, many white Americans have kneejerk, defensive reactions if the topics of racism or racial history are brought up. This is perhaps one of the main reason why the myth of American exceptionalism stays alive.
But Morrison’s novel actively deconstructs this mythology by crafting a ghost story, reminding us that ghosts don’t die.
The main characters, specifically Sethe, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and old friend (and current lover) from Sethe’s past, Paul D, spend most of their current lives trying to exorcise these ghosts. Not only must the readers participate in the disorientation and violence of being thrown into the characters’ haunted stories, but the novel’s complex, seemingly convoluted narrative is reflective of the delayed and haunting nature of trauma itself.
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud explains that the initial violent events in the life of a trauma survivor are not processed at the time of their occurrence; although the body immediately reacts, the mind can only fully recognize the disruptive, painful nature of the offense through a series of flashbacks, revisiting the original pain in a very non-linear, fragmented sequence. This, according to psychoanalytic critic Cathy Caruth, is a kind of a haunting, a possession because “the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.” In Beloved, time is continually violated by both Sethe’s recurring memories and the invisible, and eventually, embodied presence of the ghost of her slain daughter. When reading Beloved and trying to make sense of a non-linear narrative, we are mimicking the work of psychoanalysis itself. We face the traumatic events along with Sethe and the other characters, then we must turn them into a story, connecting the seemingly haphazard dots. Only then do we understand the characters, hold the story, and face the weight of it all.
When Beloved, the daughter that Sethe has killed, literally steps into her world, the haunting is visible to all. And the hard day’s work of what she calls “beating back the past” is impossible as she is seduced by the visible consequences of both her actions and circumstances. This ghost is a merging of past and present, of past reality and present imaginative possibility. Sethe’s haunting is also a collective one. Her mother-in- law, Baby Suggs, tells us “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead negroe’s grief.” The commonality of the haunting is representative of the memorialized diaspora, as well as the enduring demons that haunt the survivors. In the most disorienting section of the book, readers of Beloved encounter the collective lost voices of the middle passage, whose story can only be expressed in chaotic poetry—the “facts” of their trauma have been forgotten, beaten back, and their stories are expressed in raw, rich groans that transcend the rules of grammar.
Morrison asks a lot of her readers, especially in this section. We must participate in the reintegration of the subject as the past disrupts the present and we, like the shocked and disoriented characters of the novel, must encounter truth only via haunting.
Beloved is the book America needs to read right now if we are to face the ghosts of our violent past, bear witness to the trauma, and work towards change. We can best bear witness to that trauma by imaginatively identifying with it, understanding the deep humanity of shared trauma, and learning to love better in the process.
In the opening chapter of Race Matters, theologian Cornel West argues that in order to see real political and cultural transformation occur in America, those who have inherited the lineage of oppression need to know that they are loved. With what West calls the “politics of conversion,” this act of radically loving those whose voices have often been silenced helps dispel the tendency towards what he calls “black nihilism.” The pervading sense of hopelessness “is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by the turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth–an affirmation fueled by the concern of others. A love ethic must be at the center of a polities of conversion.” West recalls a scene from the end of Beloved as an example of this “conversion” back to identity and reconciliation.
When Sethe has once against lost everything and claims that she cannot hold the parts of herself together, Paul D explains that “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” Once the scattered “pieces” of these characters have been collected and reassembled, they each have a story. Morrison then tells us, “He wants to put his story next to hers.”
We desperately need a story to make the roots of the (often invisible) psychic damage to the collective cultural mindset become visible. The painful fragments must be exposed, reassembled, and the stories must be told, believed, and embraced. In this way, Toni Morrison’s masterpiece can help us to move forward, learn to love better, and begin to heal.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Mary McCampbell
Mary McCampbell is associate professor of humanities at Lee University. She writes on literature, film, and music, and is currently working on a book titled Postmodern Prophetic: The Religious Impulse in Contemporary Fiction.