On the surface, the novel Beloved seems like literature that makes us more aware of the brutality of slavery — the physical and emotional abuses, the violence, and the dehumanization. It is, all of these, of course, but I think that what sets Toni Morrison’s novel apart, and what has earned her the well-deserved international acclaim she has achieved, is that she goes deeper, to really get under our skin, as it were. For me, reading Beloved made me acutely aware of the color of my skin.
This is perhaps as good as it gets, when it comes to fiction writing, because Beloved forces the reader to confront themselves in relation to skin color and in relation to the brutality of racism, both past and present. Morrison does all this simpy by being a great writer, by putting the reader there, right there in the middle of it all.
Slavery was always about owning the body, about exploiting the body for economic gain, but to do so required re-defining African Americans as psychologically simplistic and sub-human. The sub-human status justified slavery and exploitation, and even today it justifies White amnesia about slavery, of the kind that makes White America trivialize it and deny that any meaningful negative effects of slavery persist to the present day.
One of the things you may have heard from a conservative or right-wing radio talk show host is, “When will black people get over it?”
America ended the institution of slavery, of course, but not the psychology of subjugation and dehumanization. Enter Morrison and Beloved.
Morrison illustrates this project of psychological subjugation in one scene in Beloved where Sethe (black slave) overhears School Teacher (her White male slave overseer) giving instructions to a white student: Create one column on a sheet of paper, says School Teacher, and list Sethe’s “human characteristics,” then create another column on that same page and list her “animal characteristics.”
This strikes Sethe to her core, and she understands, in a new way, the justification for her enslavement. In her post-slavery/emancipated life, she begins her journey to understand herself as a person with volition and agency. This forms the real heart and soul of Beloved:
“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. . . . The best thing [Sethe] was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing”
It’s the ugly side of Christianity, at least in Western civilization. We obsess about property. Our history is one of reducing all life (human and non-human) to property, and having done so, we exploit and abuse, as we desire.
White America defines the nature of the American experience
Why does White America so obsess about owning all things, having control and domination? Is it Christianity itself? Is it Christianity’s merger with capitalism? The answer is complicated, perhaps, but we see the results on display, today, even in something so trivial as kneeling during the national anthem of an NFL game.
In response to what they perceive to be excessive (and racially motivated) violence against people of color, some black football players kneel or otherwise fail to stand attentively during the Star Spangled Banner. The protest itself is fairly banal. For example, on any given game day, there are probably far more white people not standing at respect for the anthem simply because they are taking a piss, buying beers at the concession stand, or putting mustard on their hot dogs. To my knowledge this has never stirred outrage and Presidential Tweets.
What is more, the stated reasons of the protesting football players were clear and simple: to protest police brutality. This, however, is not accepted by White America. For White America, the act is deemed “disrespectful” and/or dishonoring to the troops.
This all goes back to the privilege of dehumanization, a privilege that White America has always reserved for itself. Why is it that black athletes are not allowed to interpret their own experience? Why is it that what these athletes actually say doesn’t matter to White America?
White America has always reserved for themselves the right to interpret the truth and falsity of the experience of non-white Americans. White America determines which interpretation is legitiate, in the same way that School Teacher determined that Sethe was sub-human because of her “animal characteristics.”
White America no longer defines itself as racist. Quite the contrary, but the same phenomenon is at work: White America defines the nature of the American experience.
White America has determined that racism no longer exists in America. Hence there is nothing to do anymore but for black people to “get over it” and move on. Any dissenting voices, especially from non-whites, are deemed illegitimate. As such, there is a certain irony that emerges: by being unable and unwilling to listen to non-white voices, it is truly White America who needs to get over it and move on, because it is White America who still wishes to operate according to the old slave mentality where only White America can define the nature of the American experience.
Within Morrison’s novel, there is an antithesis, there is another way.
Baby Suggs is Sethe’s mother-in-law. She is also an emancipated former-slave who decides that she is going to use her freedom to become a preacher. But she has no education, only a voice, only a Word for the weary, and so she preaches out in the woods, covertly ministering outside of the religious mainstream. (And what could be more American?)
As opposed to those who use the body for slavery and profit, Baby Suggs preaches a gospel of loving the flesh, the same flesh that is objectified and exploited:
“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it. ‘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.”
I found this to be significant, in part because it is in stark contrast to Nietzsche’s assertion that Christianity is a religion that passifies the slaves by keeping them focussed on the afterlife. Everything will be sorted out at the Great Judgement, where slave masters go to hell and slaves go to heaven, per Jesus’ famous parable about The Rich Man and Lazarus. Abraham says to the rich man, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
By contrast, there is Baby Suggs’ Gospel. To love one’s flesh, in this life, in the here and now, is an act of revolt to those who deny the value of that flesh. Baby Suggs puts the Christian faith squarely in the here and now, giving it both spiritual depth and a revolutionary potential.
This is about love, in the present moment, and this is the spiritual antidote to the social chaos created by White America’s obsession with property, with White America’s neurotic need for domination and control.
But I’m straying a bit from the novel’s fundamental concern, which is not about how White America interprets reality but about how the oppressed black characters in the novel recover their sense of themselves having been newly emancipated after the Civil War. Morrison sums it up well in a line from the novel:
Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another