Beloved. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison, inspired by runaway slave Margaret Garner, tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave that kills her daughter to save her from being taken into slavery. Years after Sethe pays the price for her crime, a mysterious girl, Beloved, comes to stay with Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her lover Paul D. Upon Beloved’s arrival, her new family feels content and for the first time, happy. Yet, as Beloved’s stay is extended, Denver and Paul D suspect that she is not who she appears to be and for Sethe, Beloved forces her to reconcile her past in order to survive the present.
Although Beloved was published in 1987, the novel had a significant impact on the 90s. The novel helped catapult Morrison into the mainstream and depicted a story of slavery that had not been previously told before. Beloved takes on the complex idea of re-memory and reconciliation. Throughout the novel characters experience re-memory (or what many just believe to be “remembering”) and attempt to reconcile the memories of the past. Sethe and Paul try to keep their slave experiences locked away, yet have to eventually face them head on. Interestingly, while Sethe fights to keep re-memory at bay, Beloved cannot recall her past. The longer Beloved stays Sethe relives more of her past. It is not until Sethe lets go of the past that Beloved disappears and she is allowed to heal.
The idea of re-memory in the novel provides context to the black experience in the 90s and presently. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise (1994) and Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) both hypothesize that black people are disenfranchised and frustrated because they are still dealing with the lasting effects of slavery. In turn, blacks turn to music or other forms of expression to reconcile slavery’s effects. According to Rose and Gilroy, re-memory permeates rap, movies, texts, and in general, black culture. Essentially, black people are facing re-memory and we won’t be able to move on until we reconcile our past. The question is: how can we escape re-memory or are we destined to stay in its grasps? What has to “disappear” in order for black people to move on?
Beloved also shocks, incites, and questions humanity. Sethe firmly believes that she is justified in killing her baby and sees it as a side effect of slavery. Slavery made Sethe into the monster the others believed her to be. Slavery created a desperate mother that did not want her children to endure the agonizing injustices of slavery. Slavery forced a mother to make a gut-wrenching decision: she would rather her children die than be enslaved.
Slavery’s effects were seen in the 90s and even today. Going back to scholars Rose and Gilroy, black people are facing decisions and creating art that perpetuates those effects. There is the realization that slavery inflicted more damaging effects that probably were not even conceived of. It is no wonder why Sethe struggles to reconcile her actions and even her life. By the end of the novel, Beloved becomes imposing, dangerous, restrictive, and burdensome—just like slavery. During the reconciliation process, Beloved drains Sethe of life while she grows pregnant with it. Again, Sethe cannot thrive until she escapes Beloved or re-memory, or slavery. Black people cannot thrive until we escape re-memory, or slavery.
Toni Morrison poignantly says of the novel: “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”[i]
The 90s was a decade that spawned black consciousness, and Beloved was no exception. The novel succeeded in creating what Morrison wanted to do; thus it goes without question that Beloved is significant to the 90s and continues to be relevant today. ––B. Stewart
[i] “A Bench by the Road.” UU World. Unitarian Universalist Association, 11 Aug. 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.