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Thursday, January 29, 2015

In the dark my name is Beloved.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman who was enslaved on a plantation called Sweet Home in Kentucky, and her life both before and after she escapes. Sethe has a husband, Halle, and four children - two sons, Howard and Buglar, and two daughters, Denver and Beloved. We learn as the book progresses that Sethe killed her youngest, Beloved, an infant, when the plantation master came for her and her children after they escaped to Ohio to live with Baby Suggs, Sethe's mother-in-law. Halle did not make it out of Sweet Home.  Denver stays with Sethe, but Howard and Buglar leave after the spirit of Beloved begins to haunt Sethe's house, 124 Bluestone Road.  Later, the spirit comes to corporeal life, insidiously wreaking havoc on the tenuous family that Sethe has created with her only remaining child, Denver, and Paul D, a friend (now lover) from Sweet Home who finds his way to their home. The book intricately and intimately weaves together the horrors of slavery and Sethe's personal experience as a wife, a woman, a lover, and a mother. It tells a horrifically dark story with poetic brilliance, and deserves a prominent place in the collection of literary classics.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This book is outstanding. I read it once before, for a course I took at Haverford called 'Portraits in Black' which focused on African-American literature. I don't think I really got the book the first time around, both because I was about a decade younger (eek!) and because it has many, many layers. If you haven't read it, you should. 

That said, be warned that it is not for the faint of heart. The book deals explicitly with slavery and all of its repercussions, and it takes you face to face with the darkest side of humanity. This post will scratch at the surface of that darkness, so consider yourself forewarned.

I can't decide on how best to organize this post, so I'm going to take my lead from the book itself, and follow a semi-linear chronological structure with a little stream of consciousness sprinkled in here and there. 

NB: I refer to certain charged words from the book to stay true to its language, so know that my use of these words is in reference only, and I recognize that many of these words are no longer in 'appropriate' usage today.
- 124, a house possessed
This book has one of my all-time favorite first lines - "124 was spiteful."

I love the way the book blends the real and the mystical, treating the possession of the house as both bizarre and banal. It reminded me of Marquez's magical realism, but with a spiritual twist.
-- "Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted, for Baby Suggs. Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light."
-- "Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?"
-- Baby Suggs, when someone suggests they leave 124: "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief."

Paul D's arrival at 124: "Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood.
  'You got company?' he whispered, frowning.
  'Off and on,' said Sethe.
 'Good God.' He backed out the door onto the porch. 'What kind of evil you got in here?'
  'It's not evil, just sad. Come on. Just step through."

I love this line - "You got company? Off and on." Haghahghaghaghag. Yes, the spirit is only around Sometimes, so not really Full-time company, so to speak. It's FINE, Paul D. Just come on in. Step right on in. 

- Lives moved like checkers pieces
Toni Morrison does an incredible job weaving the various painful impacts of slavery into the everyday realities of her characters, seamlessly and simultaneously telling a story that is at once personal and historical. 
  "In all of Baby's life, as well as Sethe's own, men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn't run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized...What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children." In many spaces like this one here, I want to say something, express the deep sorrow I feel, and the raging, burning anger it brings up in me. But mostly I just want Morrison's words and her elegant capturing of such hateful behavior to be echoed so that we are all reminded that it was real. So we'll just agree to say that is enough for now. 

- Sweet Sunday-morning pleasures
Part of what makes this book so beautiful is how Morrison finds a way to share the sweetness on the flipside of each ugly perpetration of slavery. I loved this line about Halle and Sethe:
"For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halley examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week."

- On Sethe and Halle's 'marriage'
When Sethe gets 'married' at Sweet Home, she is 14 years old. [Can you even imagine? I would have been married for 15 years.] Here is the story of her wedding dress:
"I guess she saw how bad I felt when I found out there wasn't going to be no ceremony, no preacher. Nothing. I thought there should be something - something to say it was right and true. I didn't want it to be just me moving over a bit of pallet full of corn husks. Or me bringing my nightbucket into his cabin. I thought there should be some ceremony. Dancing maybe. A little sweet william in my hair.
    Well, I made up my mind to have at least a dress that wasn't the sacking I worked in. So I took to stealing fabric, and wound up with a dress you wouldn't believe. The top was from two pillow cases in her mending basket. The front of the skirt was a dresser scarf a candle fell on and burnt a hole in, and one of her old sashes we used to test the flatiron on. Now the back was a problem for the longest time. Seem like I couldn't find a thing that wouldn't be missed right away. Because I had to take it apart afterwards and put all the pieces back where they were." Let's just call this another echo.

- On Sethe's first days free
 On community with the other African-American women: "One woman taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day." What a luxury it is that we wake up each morning and decide what to do with our day. Had you realized what a luxury it was before this moment? I hadn't.

- On [corporeal] Beloved's mysterious arrival
"Forbidden public transportation, chased by debt and filthy 'talking sheets', Negroes followed secondary routes, scanned the horizon for signs and counted heavily on each other. Silent, except for social courtesies, when they met one another they neither described nor asked about the sorrow that drove them from one place to another. The whites didn't bear speaking on. Everybody knew.
    So he did not press the young woman with the broken hat about where from or how come."

- The bit
It's taken me a long time to finish reading this book, and longer to write this blog, in large part because of how difficult the subject matter is for me. On a basic level, of course, I've known about slavery for as long as I can remember. But coming to terms with its reality and its barbarity is another thing entirely. I think it is essential that we remember the horror of it, that we don't allow ourselves to selectively remember, or to collectively forget. It is our history, and we own it, and just because I'm living over a hundred years later doesn't mean that I don't hold responsibility for undoing its wrongs. It's always easy to think, oh, that's horrible, I would definitely have been an abolitionist, or I'm sure I wouldn't have owned slaves. But the reality is that a horrific crime was perpetrated systematically over decades and centuries by one people over another because of the color of their skin, and we can't ever take that back. All we can do is listen when we are told the story, and know that as painful as it is to remember, it is unspeakable to forget.

That said, here's one of the passages I found most difficult to read, but which I think it is essential to share, on Paul D having 'the bit' placed in his mouth as punishment:
   Sethe, thinking to herself: "He wants to tell me, she thought. He wants me to ask him about what it was like for him - about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it. She already knew about it, had seen it time after time in the place before Sweet Home. Men, boys, little girls, women. The wildness that shot up into the eye the moment the lips were yanked back. Days after it was taken out, goose fat was rubbed on the corners of the mouth but nothing to soothe the tongue or take the wildness out of the eye."

- The day before
The novel builds to a flashback to the day Sethe kills Beloved. The depiction of the day prior and how it precipitates the actions the day after is lyrically beautiful and unbearably painful.

Baby Suggs hosts a party for the area because Stamp Paid, a friend of theirs, has picked a whole bunch of blackberries, and she wants to put them to good use. But after the party settles, the community is left unsettled.

-- "124, rocking with laughter, goodwill and food for ninety, made them angry. Too much, they thought. Where does she get it all, Baby Suggs, holy? Why is she and hers always the center of things?
-- "It made them furious."
-- "The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air."
-- "Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess."

- The day of
On why the collective malice kept the community from warning Sethe: "That explained why nobody ran on ahead; why nobody sent a fleet-footed son to cut 'cross a field soon as they saw the four horses in town hitched for watering while the riders asked questions. Not Ella, not John, not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in."

-- on Sethe:"If she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe."

-- on the plantation owner entering the shed and seeing Sethe trying to murder her children: "Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim."

-- Ultimately, only Sethe knows it is schoolteacher, which is why it is only she who acts: "Stamp looked into Paul D's eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children."

- When Paul D finds out
Paul D knows the house is possessed when he arrives, but he doesn't know Sethe's whole history. Here are some lines from when he finds out:

on Stamp Paid showing Paul D the article about Sethe: "There was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro's face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. Nor was it there because the person had been killed, or maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated, since that could hardly qualify as news in a newspaper. It would have to be something out of the ordinary - something whitepeople would find interesting, truly different, worth a few minutes of teeth sucking if not gasps."

-- "This here Sethe was new. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw."

Paul D: "Your love is too thick."
Sethe: "Too thick? Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all."
This was one of my favorite exchanges in the book. What made the book so powerful for me was that Morrison did such an incredible job conveying, in an organic and authentic way, what the horrors were that came before 124, and how, armed with that intimate knowledge, Sethe, our protagonist, could have believed that death by handsaw was preferable for her children. 

- The trial
Some books are a pleasure to read the whole way through, either because their content is light and airy or the author's handling of it is so. Other books are dark all the way through, and try to scare us with their misery and barbarity. This book fell in a different class for me - it was a challenge and a trial to read, in that the pain was so acute, the hurt so real. Simultaneously, though, it is one of the most brilliant literary works I've ever read. So in that sense, it was a surreal pleasure. 

- On running
Some of the wrongs of slavery and its effects are obvious and instantaneous in the book, but others are more pernicious. I loved her depiction of the challenge of an escape, because it underlined how systematic the oppression was, and how deep the layers of power ran:

-- "Nobody could make it alone. You couldn't run if you didn't know how to go. You could be lost forever, if there wasn't nobody to show you the way."

When Paul D ends up running, a Cherokee tribe tells him to follow the tree flowers to find north: "Only the tree flowers. As they go, you go. You will be where you want to be when they are gone." This line had such immensity to it - that you would risk your life and be so wholly without knowledge of the world outside (because that's how the whites wanted it) that you would base your escape to freedom on tiny tree flowers.  

- On why Sethe has to
"What Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. 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."

Stamp Paid, to Paul D: "She ain't crazy. She love those children. She was trying to out-hurt the hurter."

- Denver, on her relationship with her mother
"All the time, I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don't know what it is, I don't know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again. I need to know what that thing might be, but I don't want to."

On love and companionship
Sixo, one of the other Sweet Home slave men, trying to describe his feelings for his lady, who they call the Thirty-Mile Woman because he has to walk Thirty Miles to see her: "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. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." I would like that, Sixo. A man who is a friend of my mind. Who can gather the pieces of me and give them back to me in all the right order. I think that would be lovely. [Sixo doesn't make it out; he is burned alive after the attempted escape]

"Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that. He wants to put his story next to hers.
  'Sethe,' he says, 'me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.'
  He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. 'You your best thing, Sethe. You are.' His holding fingers are holding hers.
  'Me? Me?'

- On expelling/exorcising Beloved
In the end, the community helps to collectively expel Beloved, as she becomes downright parasitic to Sethe and Denver. This final scene reminded me of the climax of 'Practical Magic', where all the townswomen who had previously shunned the Owens sisters come to help kill the spirit of Jimmy, Nicole Kidman's abusive ex-boyfriend (aka Goran Visjnic, the doctor from ER!), who has possessed Nicole Kidman because she killed him. They all sweep and vacuum and blow away the dust of his evil essence, and there's a lively tune that plays in the background. 
-- "They remembered the party with twelve turkeys and tubs of strawberry smash."
-- "Maybe they were sorry for Denver. Or for Sethe. Maybe they were sorry for the years of their own disdain. Maybe they were simply nice people who could hold meanness toward each other just for so long and when trouble rode bareback among them, quickly, easily they did what they could to trip him up."

Passages of particular elegance and eloquence
  • On going to a carnival and seeing a circus:  "Two pennies and an insult were well spent if it meant seeing the spectacle of whitefolks making a spectacle of themselves."
  • On Beloved's attachment to Sethe: "Stooping to shake the damper, or snapping sticks for kindlin, Sethe was licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved's eyes."
  • On why Paul D can't kick Beloved out of 124: "It was one thing to beat up a ghost, quite another to throw a helpless colored girl out in territory infected by the Klan. Desperately thirsty for black blood, without which it could not live, the dragon swam the Ohio at will."
  • "Their quietness boomed about on the walls like birds in panic."
  • Denver imagining Sethe's frame of mind on her escape from Sweet Home: "She is not so afraid at night because she is the color of it, but in the day every sound is a shot or a tracker's quiet step."
  • on Paul D and his fellow prisoners escaping from the prison in the ground: "Like the unshriven dead, zombies on the loose, holding the chains in their hands, they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other."
  • "In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it."
  • on Sethe and Paul D: "She let her head touch his chest, and since the moment was valuable to both of them, they stopped and stood that way - not breathing, not even caring if a passerby passed them by."
  • Paul D, on snow: "Down came the dry flakes, fat enough and heavy enough to crash like nickels on stone. It always surprised him, how quiet it was. Not like rain, but like a secret."
  • on Denver's obsessive love for Beloved: "She will forgo the most violent of sunsets, stars as fat as dinner plates and all the blood of autumn and settle for the palest yellow if it comes from her Beloved."
  • Paul D, on trying not to love the world: "In all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it."
New vocabulary I learned:

haint - ghost, apparition, lost soul

salsify - an edible European plant of the daisy family, with a long root like that of a parsnip

croaker sack - a bag made of burlap or similar coarse material

horehound  - a strong-smelling hairy plant of the mint family, with a tradition of use in medicine

paterollers - organized groups of white men who monitored and enforced discipline upon black slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states; their function was to police slaves, especially runaways and defiant slaves

dray - a truck or cart for delivering beer barrels or other heavy loads, especially a low one without sides

Kudos if you've made it through - this one, like I said, was a trial, but so worthy of the effort, the time, and the emotion it elicited from me. I'll leave you with this brilliant closing passage; it so poignantly closes this staggering work of genius.

The End of Beloved
"Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.

[...]   It was not a story to pass on.

So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep. Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative - looked at too long - shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like, but don't, because they know things will never be the same if they do.

This is not a story to pass on."

Dear Toni Morrison, thank you for sharing the story of Beloved with us just one year after I came into this world. We are a better world for having it. 

Onwards to Plasma Noon. Join me if you will!

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