Beloved, Toni Morrison

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I’m late to the Toni Morrison party – she is obviously, and deservedly, well known to feminists and to all readers not so determinedly nationalistic as I am. At this point I check Wikipedia and discover Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am really late to the party! Morrison (1931- ) was “the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family.  She grew up in Ohio, did her BA at Howard in Washington DC and worked as a lecturer and in publishing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye came out in 1970. Beloved (1987) was her fifth and was subsequently developed into a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). As with many of my posts, I’m learning as I write, so forgive me for including stuff you already know.

My reason for reading Morrison was that I’m interested in the portrayal of race relations in other countries and in thinking about how that reflects on race relations in Australia; and that I had seen Morrison mentioned a few times by Melanie in Grab The Lapels. In her review of Sula (here) Melanie writes: “If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can.” My reason for reading Morrison in the future will be her wonderful command of language.

Beloved is the story of Sethe, and her daughters ‘Beloved’ and Denver. I write ‘Beloved’ because that is the single word on the headstone of Sethe’s daughter who died as Denver was being born. The novel begins:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old …

Baby Suggs was Sethe’s mother in law. They had been slaves on a farm down south, Sweet Home, along with six men, one of them Baby Suggs’ son Halle. The novel drifts backwards and forwards over the years (approx.) 1855 – 1875 slowly building up the story as to how the women’s home, 124 became haunted and then un-haunted. Does this make it magic realism? I’m not sure, for Morrison’s characters Beloved’s spirit is just another facet of life.

The timeline which underlies Beloved includes the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which mandates that slaves escaping to the North must be returned to their owners in the South), the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the Emancipation Proclamations of 1863-65, but only the War comes up in the text and even then, only tangentially.

Briefly, the owners of Sweet Home allow Halle to earn money in his free time, to buy his mother out of slavery. She moves to Ohio, to the white house on Bluestone Road outside Cincinnati which becomes known as 124. After Mr Garner, the farm owner dies, Mrs Garner brings in ‘the schoolteacher’ to manage the farm and the slaves lose all the freedoms they had previously been allowed. There’s a revolt. Sethe sends her boys on ahead, becomes separated from Halle, and must make her way alone, pregnant and with an infant daughter, to Baby Suggs.

Halle, we don’t see again, but in 1873 another of the six men from Sweet Home, Paul D, turns up, exorcises the ghost, the spirit of the dead baby daughter, and eventually Sethe takes him as her partner. A young woman, seemingly dumb but beautiful, giving herself the name Beloved, moves in with them. Then one day, Paul D learns the secret of the dead baby’s murder, and the three women, Sethe, Denver and Beloved are alone, isolated from the community of which Baby Suggs was once the centre.

What gets me. Over and Over. Is how hard Toni Morrison is on Whites. The “hard” we have to absorb before we can even begin to understand. The ten minutes of sex Sethe pays to have the headstone inscribed; slaves wearing headpieces with bits forcing their mouths into unnatural smiles; Sethe’s feet beaten to stop her walking off the farm, and yet she does; Black women valued more highly than men because they were mares who could throw off foals for resale; and

… That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but 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 yet, the novel ends on a note of hope. Retracing Paul D’s story as the War comes to an end, he finds himself in the North, walking unremarked amongst whitefolks, being paid for work: “That was when he decided that to eat, walk and sleep anywhere was life as good as it got. And he did it for seven years till he found himself in southern Ohio, where an old woman and a girl he used to know had gone.” Which is more or less where we started.

A scarifying work, written in the most wonderful prose. Read it and weep for all the wrongs that we have done, that we go on doing.

 

Toni Morrison, Beloved, first pub. 1987. My copy Picador (as pictured), London, 1987.