The Ghosts of Slavery

The spectral, searing power of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The Ghosts of Slavery

In writing her 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, Toni Morrison wished to unsettle readers. She wanted them “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population.” Beloved was never intended to entertain, reassure, or offer comfort.

Which must be why, 20 years later, it was banned from the curriculum at a high school in Louisville, Kentucky. You are only ready to read Beloved if you are ready to grapple with the complexity of American history. The facts are painful. Horrendous things have taken place. The land of the free and home of the brave was largely built on the backs of enslaved people and by settlers who drove Indigenous tribes from their land. As Morrison writes, these people need you to hear their pain.

Beloved is one of the most painful novels I’ve ever read. What are we to make of a mother who slits her baby’s throat as an act of selfless love? Of a mother who must then have sex with an engraver to pay for a one-word inscription on the baby’s tombstone, “Beloved”? That mother, the formerly enslaved Sethe, is to be haunted by the ghost of the dead child until her home becomes unbearable and both her sons run off.

In conceiving the story, which is set in 1873 and was based on a real event, Morrison understood the central figure would have to be the one who had no say: the murdered child. So, the horror comes out in jumbled fragments. The narrative moves forward and then doubles back. It can be digested no other way.

Morrison is channeling America’s ghosts in this novel. Sometimes, she writes in stream-of-consciousness monologues; at other times, in pitch-perfect dialogue. But always she employs a language whose emotional and psychological range is immense, transcendent, and terrible. As she channels these voices, we are haunted, too.

Beloved, as the child comes to be known, had no agency in life but wields enormous power in death. Similarly, although enslaved people had no agency, the specter of slavery must be confronted if we are to heal from its wounds and move forward.

Oh, if only history could be changed! What might Sethe be able to forget if Beloved was alive once again? Morrison asks us to join her in this thought experiment when, in later chapters, Beloved shows up in physical form as the young woman she might’ve become.

Maybe there will be reinvention and room for family life. “If her daughter could come home from the timeless place,” Sethe thinks, “certainly her sons could, and would, come back from wherever they had gone.” Sethe’s second daughter, Denver, finally has a living sister and thinks it lovely to be “pulled into view by the interested uncritical eyes of the other.”

Unfortunately, history cannot be changed. Beloved will always hold her mother accountable for what she did. Sethe, in turn, will never be able to soothe Beloved enough, comfort her enough, or make up for the past.

At one stage, Sethe wonders, if other people go crazy, why can’t she? “Other people’s brains stopped, turned around and went on to something new.” In fact, others sometimes shut down completely in order to keep going. Sethe’s man, Paul D, also once enslaved, “shuts down a generous portion of his head, operating on the part that helped him walk eat sleep sing.”

Shutting down to keep on going. How does that make sense? But crazy is the only sane response when an act of unspeakable cruelty becomes an act of love. When sex is used more often to brutalize than to bond. When a mother’s milk can be taken during a gang rape or else fed to a living child, along with the blood of her sister.

In physical form, Beloved gradually becomes a destructive force. Sethe wears herself out trying to provide sweetness. Then, Beloved seduces Paul D, asking him to touch her on the inside part and call her by her name. In other words, just as Beloved sees Denver as she is, Paul D alone sees Beloved’s complexity. And that is why, despite all he has suffered, it is he who finds a way forward, carrying their damage and pain.

“She gather me, man,” he says of Sethe toward the end of the novel. “The pieces I am. She gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

One of the book’s most wrenching and unforgettable passages is the escape, decades earlier, of the enslaved Sethe when a white vagrant named Amy Denver helps deliver baby Denver. It is a scene illustrative of everything that makes this novel great. It is brutal, tender, strong, cruel, loving, and transcendent all at once.

What can we take from it? Amy and Sethe are both broken women. They’ve been undone by life. But they are stronger and more resourceful than we realize. They are built to survive, and together, they do just that:

“a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair wrapping a ten-minute old babe in the rags they wore.”

By the time you get to the end of Beloved, you’ve been put through hell. If any story is unforgettable, it’s this one. And yet Morrison paradoxically concludes that “it is not a story to pass on.” In the final pages, everyone forgets about Beloved and gets on with their lives. But I believe this is Morrison’s way of insisting that we cannot close our minds to the unspeakable things of America’s past. We must pass the story on. People need us to hear their pain. Only by absorbing it do we earn the right to move on.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a columnist and poetry editor for the Independent and the voice of “Read Me a Poem,” a podcast of the American Scholar.

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