It’s strangely fitting to have read Beloved, Toni Morrison’s stunning novel, in the week after controversy blew up around American Dirt. Writers and readers are justifiably up in arms about how historical tragedies are appropriated by authors who, to give them the benefit of the doubt, meant well. Even with years of research, these stories rarely ring true in the way that books written by own-voices authors do. Beloved is one of the most heart-wrenching books I’ve ever read because it contains so much emotional depth about questions and thoughts I don’t think would ever have occurred to someone who wasn’t a writer of color. This book packed so much of a punch that I had to take breaks. I couldn’t handle that much raw, harrowing truth all at once.
Sethe, like many characters in Beloved, has been living a hollow life since she ran for freedom with her children. Her life in slavery, the unspeakable events that led to her escape, and the terrible things that happened just after her escape have led Sethe to strip out joy, comfort, friendship, and so much more from her existence. Paul D, a man she knew at the farm where they were enslaved, lives a similarly faded life. The damage they have endured comes with so much guilt that to find any kind of happiness seems wrong. It also doesn’t help that, in Sethe’s case, that her house is haunted by the spirit of one of her children.
I had thought that Beloved would be about Sethe’s guilt over her actions when she was threatened with slavery after finding freedom. There are sections of the book that cover this, but the abuses Sethe suffers and the crime she commits serve more as touchstones for larger questions of autonomy and identity. I love the way this book is constructed for the way it circles back on itself, with every iteration revealing more about what happened. Every repetition serves to more fully illuminate the characters’ motivations and actions.
What interested me most about Beloved were the questions about autonomy that kept coming up. As enslaved people, Sethe and Paul D wrestle with the identities that had to reform once they were free. They no longer had to warp their personalities to conform to the expectations of the people who had the arrogance to try and own other human beings. That said, how do you shuck off years of psychological abuse even if, as Paul Dr reflects, some of their “masters” were relatively benign? And for Sethe, how does one inhabit the authority of a parent when one doesn’t have autonomy over one’s self? It’s no wonder that Sethe and her children are so fiercely connected and possessive of each other.
Above all, Beloved is an astoundingly well-written book. It is the kind of book that I had to periodically look up from to let the language wash over me before I continued. Every word in this book is perfectly chosen; not only do the words sound like the voices of the individual characters, but they also spoke straight to me as the book pondered its themes of ostracism, racism, autonomy, and motherhood. This is not an easy book to read. It definitely has the potential to trigger white fragility. But I feel privileged to have read it. Reading this book felt like someone had taken me aside to tell me hard truths about Black history that are always overlooked in predominately white classrooms and discourses. Beloved is a masterpiece.