Beloved by Toni Morrison
My parents were shocked when I told them I was reading Beloved for the first time. I think most people who know my reading history would be, but I believe that I finally picked up this book at just the right time. It was my senior year of college when I engaged in Toni Morrison’s work for the first time. I read Sula and the Bluest Eye for a Black Women Writers course that not only fostered my understanding of Black feminist theory but introduced me to work by Black women that solidified my artistic perspective as a creative but also continues to literally save my life to this day. Black women writers — novelists, essayists, and poets — stake out the physical space I need to exist in the world as I know it today. This blog came about as a result of needing to sit in that space, and I am so thankful for us.
Beloved is a story of a woman who is trying to make sense of her life before and after slavery and is haunted by her choices. I’m going to assume that many of you aren’t like me and didn’t take 23 years to read one of Morrison’s most iconic works, so I’ll refrain from summarizing the story and offer what I hope will be a unique perspective. I recently listed to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Still Processing, in which the hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris drew parallels between Jordan Peele’s newest thriller, Us, and Beloved. I was so intrigued by the connection they make between the characters Red in the film and Beloved in the text that I decided to explore them further here. So I hope you’ve seen the movie too!
In the book, Beloved materializes as the physical manifestation of the baby Sethe killed rather than give back up to slavery. As the story unfolds, we see that Beloved is fixated on the belief that Sethe left her. The woman whose “face is [her] own” refused to smile at her and left her in the dark, cramped place (248). If we look at both the film and the book, clearly laid out is the story of Beloved’s neglect in the “underworld” and Red’s neglect in the tunnels. They both have a singular desire for revenge for being left behind. Beloved finds her way back to Sethe and what seems at first to be just an obsessive level of attention develops into a insatiable desire to take back everything that Sethe took from her. This is much more than a theoretical metaphor — as Sethe withers away, Beloved grows fatter.
What’s central to Jenna and Wes’ connection between Beloved and Red is that they are both maliciously childlike in their action. While the violence of killing the entire American population is obviously not that of the average child, the end goal of Red’s sceme is to reinact the “Hands Across America” 1986 campaign — a fixation from the shirt she was wearing when she was trapped down in the tunnels as a child. Beloved’s childish demand for all of Sethe’s attention and care, in spite of the presence of another child, Denver, is epitomized by the tantrums she throws when she does not immediately get her way. Whens she and Sethe enter into this “game” of mother and daughter, Denver is boxed out, and when the consequences are hunger and starvation, she is forced to leave her home, a thing she has not done since she was a child. Before Beloved’s arrival, Denver had been the spoiled one, the one whose whims were encouraged. Beloved’s childishness forces Denver’s maturation in order to save both herself and her mother. Denver always knew that Beloved was her sister, and lived in fear that whatever welled up in her mother that let her kill her the first time would come again. It’s when she realizes that it is her mother that she must protect from Beloved, that she must counter childish games with adult resolve.
There is an important thread throughout the novel about how grief haunts Sethe and the repercussions of her actions continue to echo over the years of her life. There is the trauma that she herself carries as someone who endured and escaped slavery only to have it track her to the doorstep of what had been her safehouse coupled with the reality of what happens the seeds she has sown come to pass. In both Us and Beloved, the trauma is not experienced solely by the mothers of these stories. Both of their families are caught up and forced to make hard decisions and fight for their lives. All but one of Sethe’s living children leave 124 house and are never heard from again. Adelaide’s children must either kill or be killed. As Jenna Wortham says in Still Processing, these are the stories of “a Black woman who cannot escape herself.”
Beloved circles around Sethe’s action in the same way the Us circles Adelaide’s. Morrison’s writing creates an ever clearer lens through which we see Sethe’s actions and her reasons. In both, each woman is trying to do the best that they can for their children — to give them the life they never had. Central to the story is the question of what will we do in the name of love? Sethe would have seen all her children dead than as slaves. Adelaide leads her family into a fight for their lives in order to maintain what she had. For both of them, there are repercussions both seen and unforeseen.
At the end of this podcast episode, host Wessley Morris asks, “How free can we really be when all of us aren’t free?” Sethe thought she was setting Beloved free by killing her, but in doing so condemned herself to a lifetime of haunting. She seemed content to carry the burden of a baby ghost wrecking her home, but the weight proved to be too much for most of her family. Even when they are finally free of her physical manifestion at the close of the novel, I am left wondering what the cost of choosing to forget her will be.
You should read Toni Morrison’s Beloved if you value a challenge. For me, Morrison has never presented an easy read. Her writing both obscures and reveals a thing at the same time, and this book exemplifies that. Beyond the difficulty of the experience, this is a story that is gritty and raw and asks a hard question of our humanity: What are the consequences of love?
What did you think of Beloved? or Jordan Peele’s Us? Do you see the parallels between the two? Let’s chat in the comments below. Also make sure you check out Still Processing for more amazing, intellectual conversations about Black culture and art!