“124 was mean. Full of baby venom. “
These lines open Toni Morrison’s magnum opus “Beloved” and warn the reader that the story is about something haunting. But what “Beloved” represents is an obsession in itself. The novel never makes us forget that the past is omnipresent.
This is part of the reason why the book is considered not only part of the canon of black literature, but also of American literature as a whole. But that’s also why people try to keep him out of public schools.
When it is convenient, the past and the present can coexist. But when we suppress ugly truths, the past stubbornly haunts us.
The characters in the book who escape the Sweet Home Plantation and achieve freedom in Cincinnati, settling at house number “124”, want to forget things from the past – the horrors of slavery in particular. But the main character, the reincarnated victim of his mother’s infanticide, needs them to remember. Beloved thirsts more than the memory, in fact. It requires a confrontation between the past, the present and the future.
Openness to teaching such moments of confrontation has become the latest flashpoint in Virginia’s race for governor. On Monday, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin released an announcement condemning former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto on a bipartisan bill that would have required schools to notify parents when books with explicit content were awarded. The ad features Laura Murphy, who in 2013 opposed the inclusion of “Beloved” as required reading for her son’s Advanced Placement English course. Running as the “parental rights” candidate, Youngkin also declared his intention to ban critical race theory on his election day.
How ironic that the themes of the book reflect what happens during the election campaign.
McAuliffe called the ad a “racist dog whistle.” But the promise to ban or require warnings on the books that cause lawmakers to “turn bright red in embarrassment,” as Murphy said when she contacted lawmakers about the book, is more than a dog whistle. This is proof how this nation is petrified of its past, especially when that past challenges American myths of freedom and justice for all. But we cannot escape this past. It’s in our statuary, our architecture, our entertainment and our culture. When it is convenient, the past and the present can coexist. But when we suppress ugly truths, the past stubbornly haunts us.
Beloved’s relentless pursuit of truth insists that we see both virtue and vice. The novel recounting the love story between Sixo, who is enslaved on the Sweet Home plantation, and the Thirty-Mile woman (who is enslaved on a nearby plantation), so called because he regularly walked 30 miles to see her, gives us a glimpse into their inner life, even if they are imagined. There are stories that only fiction can tell. Their intense love – as the novel describes it – animates our understanding of the emotional depth of black people, even during the absurdity of slavery. There is virtue. Next, white men burn Sixo alive when he is caught after his latest attempt to escape from Sweet Home. Therein lies the vice. Despite everything, he laughs and shouts “Seven-O!” It is the work of great literature. “Only writers,” as Morrison put it in opposing censorship of books, “can translate and turn grief into meaning.”
It is not, and should not be, easy to read about the psychological effects of slavery or the physical torture that slaves endured. We should be uncomfortable reading about Halle, one of Sweet Home’s male slaves, who never mentally recovers after seeing young white boys breastfeed his wife, Sethe. Their aggression is twofold. When they are done, they beat her with rawhide whips. Inhumanity should make us uncomfortable enough to start asking questions about America’s past. Later, when another slave, Paul D., sees Halle sitting, mute and horrified, he cannot scream or comfort his friend – for he has an iron bit in his mouth, as he awaits his transport to a prison labor camp. for daring to try to be free. History is full of moments that force us to reflect on the traumatic experiences of black Americans. But it is much more than that. After Sethe runs away and decides to kill his children – one of them being Beloved – rather than return them to slavery, our moral imaginations sharpen as we too must question ourselves. his right to take someone else’s life, whether out of a sense of duty and protection or as a senseless act of freedom and independence.
If a senior in an advanced English course finds the contents of a book like “Beloved” so “disgusting and rude” that it has caused them night terrors, as Murphy claimed, which happened to her son, imagine how much more difficult the experience is. must have been. What Youngkin’s choice to raise this issue at this point in the campaign reveals his understanding of the appeal of anti-intellectualism among a specific segment of voters. The purpose of all great literature is to teach and to enlighten. Obviously, not everyone is interested in this kind of lesson or enlightenment, not when it means changing our view of the world from innocent to accomplice. But the memories of past inhumanities do not die. They haunt us. And no effort to forbid thought can stop it.
It is not, and should not be, easy to read about the psychological effects of slavery or the physical torture that slaves endured.
“Beloved” and so many books like this show us how literature does the history of labor will not. If we allow the superficial teachings of history to hide the life of Margaret Garner, the woman whose story inspired Morrison to write the novel, we also allow the incongruous uncertainty of the slave owners about the charges to be erased. who could be brought against Margaret Garner for killing her child. If the act is considered murder, the young child must be recognized as a human being. Not wanting to admit this reality, the case was presented as a case of runaway slaves and property, not murder. In her recounting of the story of Margaret Garner, “Beloved” forces us to consider the ugly truths of American slavery, racial violence, and circumstances so horrific that infanticide could be seen as a viable and reasonable response.
So “beloved” teaches us nothing at all, it is that, in fiction and in fact, the exorcisms of the past are complicated. The past has lessons to teach us, and literature, in general, offers us a safe place to resolve contradictions from the past in order to inform the future.
Morrison’s pun with the “This is not a story to be passed on” line at the end of the novel is revealing. This is indeed not a story to exclude or ignore, and the lived experiences of history should not be passed on to future generations – but if they are not addressed in the present, the past (however vile) will continue to haunt us.