Understanding slavery

Jane Miller

  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
    Chatto, 275 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3060 1

Toni Morrison’s novels have been constructed, and are magically unsettled, by the unique character of historical memory for black Americans. That is to say, she has wanted to account for black experience that has been ignored or quite inadequately narrated by white historians and novelists, and even more significantly, in order to do that she has needed to confront precisely those aspects of the experience which have blocked memory, made remembering intolerable and memories inexpressible, literally unspeakable. Indeed, the verb ‘rememory’ is invented in her astonishing novel, Beloved, to stand for something like a willed remembering which includes its own strenuous reluctance to return to the past.

Her novels and her people are rooted in a known physical world, shared and chorally spoken for. In such a world even the hardest daily tasks may be welcomed, for there is ‘nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past’. It is with the sudden and inescapable eruptions of the past into the present, however, and with the capacities of people to live with and rework the impossibly painful and humiliating, that her fiction is concerned. White guilt and breast-beating drop away to become a backcloth, an incomprehensible cause, the terrifying question: ‘What are these people?’

Toni Morrison’s language enacts the conflicting movements of memory within the cultural history of those who were slaves and their descendants, people who have wrestled with that past and with its endlessly destructive consequences. Some of the richest and most finely controlled writing of the 20th century re-creates a culture and a history characterised by illiteracy and by a speech spun out of resistance and inhumanly controlled. Illiteracy is not experienced here as a deprivation in itself, but as a symptom and symbol of the ultimate deprivations of a slave’s life. When Paul D, an ex-slave, is shown an old newspaper cutting with a drawing of a black woman he tries not to recognise, he is whipped by fear, ‘because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear’.

Of Toni Morrison’s four earlier novels only Tar Baby leaves the Ohio town which contains the black communities of her other novels; and Tar Baby, which is arguably Morrison’s least successful novel, oddly avoids history. In fact, a part of its intention is to propose as characteristic of an undifferentiated present dilemmas about identity which have been uncomfortably learned from contemporary white culture. The first three novels recall linked pasts. The Bluest Eye occupies the twenty years between the remembering Claudia’s childhood in the Forties and her adult disturbance of these neat ‘years folded like pocket handkerchiefs’ during which another child of the neighbourhood, Pecola, driven mad by her longing for blue eyes, by her father’s raping her, by the utter hopelessness of a family destroyed from within by its own self-loathing, is allowed to become ‘all of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed’. Pecola’s madness is a form of flight; a form Morrison can explain but does not condone. A murderous ruthlessness becomes an alternative form of flight in Sula, a novel which moves from the end of the First World War to the Forties, following the generations of women within one family clinging for its life to an arid hillside and a life which denies men the possibility of supporting their families or even of finding a place in them. The novel contains one of Morrison’s most extraordinary moments, when the matriarch Eva, who has already had a leg amputated in order to claim insurance on it, burns her loved son to death because she can no longer bear his defeats and addictions. Women’s capacity for survival, their expectation that the men they love will not ‘measure up’ and the lengths to which they will go to protect their children from the despair which waits for them: all this is seen to have its source in a complete separation of men from women, which produces a disabling and disastrous imbalance. The history which has priced men, women and children in terms of their potential productiveness has depended on their developing no attachments to one another.

Song of Solomon begins and ends with flight. At the moment of its hero’s birth in 1931 to Macon Dead and his wife, Mr Smith the insurance man crashes to his death on a pair of wide blue wings. Thirty years later, Milkman Dead has flown from the deadly order and the self-delusions of his home and heritage to the source of his own history in the South. He leaps into the unknown too and discovers that ‘if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.’ With each of these novels, Toni Morrison has been inching her way back beyond 20th-century experiencing of racism, poverty and injustice towards its origins in the history of slavery – a history which Morrison has likened to ‘having World War Two for two hundred years’.

Beloved is set in Ohio again, on the edges of Cincinnati. It begins in 1873, with Sethe and her adolescent daughter, Denver, alone in No 124, Bluestone Road, which is a house haunted by a dead baby. Remembering starts at once, gingerly backing away from the present to repopulate the house and recover its past as a refuge for escaping slaves, and its brief apparent heyday, when Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, seemed able to hold together the remnants of her family and preached powerfully to the members of a black community so damaged by their lives as slaves that they must learn from scratch to attend to their own bodies:

‘Here,’ she said, ‘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.’

Slowly, delicately and shockingly the narrative picks its way backwards to Sethe’s girlhood as a slave, to her escape, to her isolation within a shared past, which is never allowed by Morrison to be more appalling for those who suffered it than the subsequent mutilations they were to commit on themselves in its wake. Time and time again the narrative appears to recoil from its own destination. The novel tells us about implements of torture, imaginatively designed to cause the greatest pain, to curb movement and speech and sleep. It alludes to the viciousness, the unending and inhuman cruelty of white slave-owners in cold, brilliantly-lit asides. It does not forget that there were kinder white people, that there are pleasures for Sethe to remember too. But the story of slavery it tells is always from within the heads of those who were slaves.

Paul D, the only one to survive of the male slaves Sethe knew years ago on Sweet Home Farm, arrives at No 124. It is 18 years since he last saw Sethe, whom he loved and generously relinquished to his friend Halle. Now he becomes her lover and they begin to be happy. They do not discuss the past very much, but we learn that Sethe herself arrived at this same house in 1855 with four small children, the youngest only just delivered with the help of a runaway white girl in a boat during her flight north. Sethe’s back had been suppurating then from the beating she was given during the last month of her pregnancy, during which she was also raped. Her back, with its branch-like weals and blossoming pus, has since become an elaborate tree of scarred flesh, made bizarrely beautiful by Paul D’s loving her, and standing for the secrets her body contains and emits in a gradual gathering of voices.

Then Beloved appears. A young woman fully and strangely dressed walks out of the water and waits for Sethe and Denver. Her skin is unlined except for three minute vertical scratches on her forehead. Her simplicity and unworldliness are disconcerting, blandly and mysteriously malevolent. Sethe and Denver are drawn to this needy young woman. Paul D is on his guard. We have no difficulty in recognising Beloved as the baby’s ghost which has haunted the house for so long, now grown up. We learn that Sethe’s two sons left the house, unable to bear the manifestations of the ghost baby. We learn, too, that Sethe had a baby daughter – not the youngest – who died. Her gravestone bears only the word ‘Beloved’, for Sethe could not afford to put ‘Dearly’ as well. By the time we are told the truth, harshly and as seen through the eyes of hostile outsiders, we have experienced Sethe’s choice, her decision, the life she has made for herself for the last 18 years. We see the scene which greeted Sethe’s sadistic old master, known as ‘schoolteacher,’ as he arrives on horseback to reclaim his runaway slave and her children, who are legally his:

Inside, two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other. She did not look at them; she simply swung the baby toward the wall planks, missed and tried to connect a second time, when out of nowhere – in the ticking time the men spent staring at what there was to stare at – the old nigger boy, still mewing, ran through the door behind them and snatched the baby from the arch of its mother’s swing.

     Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim.

Beloved has come back to punish her mother, but also to elicit her love. She is on the point of strangling Sethe when her stroking hands are stopped by tenderness, by her delight in her mother’s neck, ‘the damp skin that felt like chamois and looked like taffeta’. Toni Morrison has based Sethe’s story on a true one, of an ex-slave who killed her children to prevent their recapture. The experience of slavery which the novel so extraordinarily gives us begins from this act and from the compelling need to understand it. The lives of people who are denied their own names, denied the marriage ceremony and denied the right to love their children as parents is explosively compressed within that image. When Paul D learns that Sethe, ‘this sweet sturdy woman’, has murdered her own child he is moved to leave, but is drawn back by love. He recalls a dead friend saying of the woman he loved, she ‘is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ Finally, Sethe explains her murderous actions:

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 though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing – the part of her that was clean.

And finally Paul D gently says to her: ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You.’

Beloved is dispersed by love. She disappears and is gradually forgotten. Her need to understand her own death, to know for certain that her mother killed her because she loved her, is met. That painful, paradoxical love is matched by the discovery Paul D makes during his 18 years of desperate escapes and recaptures that ‘he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his.’ Love is the capacity to be moved by beauty and pleasure, to recognise human beings as always human. Out of what she has called ‘a survivalist intention to forget certain things’ Toni Morrison has created a frightening, beautiful and intensely exciting novel about America and its past. I am not able to think of a better one.