‘I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness.’ -Toni Morrison
Man is not God yet he has played God not only with his fellow animals but his fellow humans too. And what a God he has been: a callous, cruel, murderous paragon of barbarianism. He has left no stone unturned to decimate hundreds of species that freely roamed the earth once, flitted in its air or swam its waters. He has dared to reverse the evolutionary cycle of an entire human species by subjugating and reducing them to cattle. The dark history of Slavery available to the masses today barely comes close to the ominous tempest that pulverised centuries in America and whose tremors are still felt under those skies.
Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and recently has been adjudged the best American fiction in recent twenty five years, beating the oeuvres of John Updike and Philip Roth. The citation may be debatable but surely, Morrison was awarded Noble Prize for Literature in 1993 for the ‘visionary force and poetic import’ of her writing.
Beloved is a both a ballad and a dirge of millions of humans, a sea of men, women, children, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, their bodies, souls, bones, skins, lives and deaths lost to slavery. Millions are the stories and many have told it before but none has put the reader in the eye of the raging black tempest like Toni Morrison.
It is 1873, Cincinnati, Ohio. The book begins with Sethe and Denver, the occupants of a gray-white house called ‘124’ on Bluestone Road. The mother and daughter are living alongside the malicious ghost of a baby who was slaughtered by her own mother when she was just two. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
Sixteen years ago, Sethe had escaped from the clutches of ‘Sweet Home’, the plantation in Kentucky where she was a slave. Her escape was triggered by a larger plan gone awry due to the capture of men slaves Sixo and Paul D, and disappearance of Halle, Sethe’s husband. Sixo was put to a gruesome end and Paul D was put in a three-spoke collar and chains. Sethe’s milk was sucked by mossy-toothed cousins of the hateful schoolteacher who took notes while they desecrated her. She was whipped with cowhide for reporting on them to the dying mistress of the estate. A distraught Sethe resolved to set herself and her children free by escaping to Baby Suggs in Ohio, with or without her husband Halle.
Baby Suggs was already free as her son Halle had bought her from the earlier more human master by further pawning himself. At the earliest chance, Sethe dispatched her two sons and an ‘already crawling?’ daughter to Baby Suggs in a carriage, helped by people committed to liberating slaves. Immediately after that a very pregnant Sethe trudged her way to freedom. She was helped by an indentured white slave girl en route who also helped her deliver the baby in a boat. Sethe named the baby ‘Denver’ after the white girl.
She was united with her children and mother-in-law at 124 in Ohio. They had a grand celebration attended by the African-American community in the neighbourhood. However, the merry-making was cut short by the arrival of her master and his cousins accompanied by the sheriff. The Fugitive Slave Law permitted the owners of fleeing slaves to track and claim them from anywhere including the ‘free’ northern states. Sensing her imminent capture Sethe rounded up her sons and daughters and rushed them into a woodshed where she cut the neck of her elder daughter with a handsaw and tried to kill her sons and the infant daughter too. She would rather have them dead and safe than allow them to return to the scourge of slavery. Somehow the liberationists prevailed and saved Sethe from a certain death at the hands of the law. But the shock was too much for her mother-in-law who took to bed and faded away.
Outcast and sequestered, Sethe and Denver were eking out a subdued existence when one day Paul D, one of the Sweet Home men who had escaped from jail and survived, turns up at 124. Paul D and Sethe are happy to be united once more and are immediately drawn to each other. No sooner than Paul D starts putting up at 124 the ghost makes its vicious presence known. Paul D responds with even greater violence by knocking things around and miraculously, the ghost vanishes for good! His joy is short-lived though as it returns in the fleshed out form of a girl the age she would have been if she had not died. The girl tells them her name is Beloved, exactly the name Sethe could give to her ‘already crawling?’ girl. In fact, ‘Beloved’ was all she could get chiseled on a pink headstone for the daughter she had murdered, by paying with sex. Beloved chases Paul D away and takes both Denver and Sethe in her grips. But as soon as it dawns upon Sethe who Beloved is, she abandons everything else in her life to dote upon her. Soon, she ignores Denver completely and starts wasting away, repenting, explaining herself and propitiating Beloved.
Beloved doesn’t make for a light reading. It is intense, disturbing, scalding, lyrical, lilting and haunting, all at the same time. To be sure, the book is not bound by linearity or temporality. Nor is it bound by words or sentences. The book seems to have been written in timelessness and wordlessness. Beloved is a book written in grains of emotions. Toni Morrison puts the reader straight in the souls of the writhing and wriggling slaves, the people who had neither any right nor knowledge of their parents or offspring, siblings or spouse, nor did they have any right on their hands, their feet, their faces, their power, their virility, their femininity; people, who had no rights to the sun and the wind, the moon and the stars, the trees and the flowers, the earth and the sky, the clouds and the rains. She puts the reader in the poignant heart of a mother hankering for her dead daughter one moment and the next she thrusts him to the gut-wrenching misery of a dead daughter and her pining for her mother.
Beloved is also unique in the sense it blurs the boundaries between the living and the dead, yet it must not be mistaken for a ghost story. The emotions, suppressed and stubborn, flit from past to the present and back to the past, from living to the dead and back to the living, revisiting the times and places, the ‘rememory’ again and again and yet again, establishing themselves both on the characters and the readers. It is complete in its portrayal of brutal, lifelong suppression that has permanently impaired the individuality of the slaves, bonded or freed, rendering it difficult for them to trust themselves, or to trust the ones without skin and with mossy teeth. Their humiliation is complete. Their destruction is complete. Their desecration is complete. Their devastation is complete. Beloved, the apocalyptic work of Tony Morrison, is replete with endurance and fortitude of these splintered souls. It remains a short but surprisingly complete history of the institution of Slavery.
“But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and afterlife, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them everyone. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.”
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Vintage Random House