I read Beloved by Toni Morrison probably a month or so ago, and I have been struggling with writing a blog about it. My experience of it defies my usual, quick reviews. The experience was a jumble of many different things, and because I think struggling through these experiences, especially difficult ones, is necessary both for my writing but more importantly for my own personal growth, I am going to (imperfectly) capture my experience of it. But before I do that, I want to first point you to someone else’s experience of it, because (as I will discuss) this book was not written for my white self with an ancestry free of enslaved people, so I hope you take a moment to go read crunkadelic’s experience of it as a sacred text at the Crunk Feminist Collective (and if you wrote or know of other blogs by African-Americans discussing the book, drop links in the comments!). If you only have time for one blog post, choose theirs.
Beloved was my first experience of Toni Morrison’s writing (I would like to thank her specifically for showing me how much of a n00b I am in this whole writing game). Her prose and imagery have that soft force that gets under your skin and vibrates there – noticeable and demanding attention but not necessarily conscious attention. It works on you, like old memories that can never be forgotten. Morrison bolsters that force through the storytelling itself. Sethe is safe now, but the memories of the violence and degradation and dehumanization and English-cannot-really-capture-it-in-simple-adjectives of being a slave violate that safety.
Here is where I struggle. As a white person reading this book, I am horrified by the treatment of Sethe and Paul D. I am horrified by how the “good” white people treat them. I feel pain, I cry, I understand how Sethe needed to protect her children. But I don’t understand, really. In Spanish, there are two words for the word “for”: por and para. They mean different things and do different work in a sentence. I want something like that for the word Understand. My brain understands Sethe’s decision, but my life experiences and my own history keep me from fully understanding. I have the logic; I have not the bone deep connection to that story.
This is good. This struggle is good. This recognition that stories are not written for me and something that I cannot really understand is good. I will keep reading them (The Bluest Eye is on my bedside table). As a white person committed to anti-racism (who fails at it a lot, learns a lesson (or several), recommits and tries again), (hi)stories of people of color by people of color for people of color teach me so much. Not the arms-length “slavery was bad but now we have a black president” story of history class, but the vital and blooded and bloodied experiences and how that history infects our society. They teach me how well-meaning white people get it wrong, how patronizing we are, how self-congratulatory. They teach me how positive steps toward better engagement with race can at the same time be entirely problematic. They give me something more than White narratives of race that were my whole understanding of our history for far too long.
Beloved is a beautiful, difficult, challenging book. And I highly recommend you read it. Even if you are not looking for any of the above, Morrison’s powerful story of slavery and the costs of freedom are well worth your time.