Although I do not like reading violent stories, one of my favorite books has such a poignant message that I love it regardless, or maybe because of, the brutal facts is illustrates.
In Beloved by Toni Morrison, the ghosts of slavery live on, even though it is the year 1873. In one sense, Beloved is literally a ghost story: former slave Sethe and her daughter, Denver, are haunted by the ghost and apparition of Beloved, Sethe’s daughter. However, the true ghost haunting 124 is more significant, for the ghost is not a tangible person, but rather memory. Even eighteen years after her escape from slavery, Sethe is haunted by her past.
When Paul D, one of the slaves Sethe worked with at Sweet Home, re-enters her life, they all must come to terms with their memories. This challenge manifests in the memories of things as simple as color as they struggle to see the world beyond black and white. Further, the tree Sethe carries on her back is a conflicting reminder of both the good memories with her husband (whom she loved) and the horrendous abuse she encountered while at the tree-lined yet cruel Sweet Home.
Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, understood how to overcome the ghosts of memory, for she told the black community of Cincinnati to love their hearts.
“Here…in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stoke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! … And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you go to love them. The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than the eyes or feet. More than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (page 88)
And yet, that seems to be exactly what Sethe and Paul D cannot do. Paul D can no longer reach his heart, kept inside him like a tobacco tin (page 113), and instead of loving her own heart, Sethe invests in loving her children, even when they are absent.
For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, [Paul D] knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one. (page 45)
By telling the heart-wrenching story of just one family of escape slaves, Toni Morrison captures, in Beloved, a part of the black American collective memory (Sixty million and more). Like Sethe (and yet so unlike her), a horrible past haunts America’s past. This book is violent, but it is ultimately universal. The message is one we all need. It’s a reminder to all of us of the power of self-love, self-esteem, and friendship:
“You your best thing.” (page 273)
No, this is not a story to pass on (page 274-275). While the collective memory of slavery, and the common bond shared, remains below the surface, the people must learn to live and love themselves despite the past.
As Sethe escaped slavery, a young white girl rubbed her raw feet.
“It’s gonna hurt, now,” said Amy. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts” (page 35).
How true that is, on many levels.
Have you read Beloved? What themes stood out to you?
Thoughts On Rereading
It’s now been two weeks since I finished this reread of Beloved. I loved it just as much upon this reread (which I think was probably the sixth time) as I did when I read it years ago. It had been about five years since my last reread.
Thanks to the reading list I found in my closet a few weeks ago, I know now that I read Beloved for the first time over the course of two days, the summer before my senior year of high school. I also reread it a few times before and during my college years, including a semester in which I studied it and wrote a paper in a class. My paper was pretty unsatisfying, simply because I realized partway through that my writing could never do this book justice.
There is so much meat in Beloved that I cannot possibly capture it, not now and not back when I tried to write about in school. I doubt that any reader can capture the depth of Beloved in one single read, or even, in my case, in six reads. Beloved is meant to be reread to be understood and loved, and that depth is one of the reasons I love it.
What book do you love to reread?
It’s interesting that each reading emphasizes something different for me. Because I read my personal copy of this book for a class, I’d circled and highlighted key phrases, obviously seeking out the key components of a theme. It’s almost amusing to read it now, because every single paragraph has multiple markings, and that seems to take away the purpose of the emphasis. Nonetheless, I loved revisiting it in my copy. I noticed different things, but those issues were still present.
Do you mark up your books? I only did when I was writing papers about them.