Of my first time reading Beloved, I remember most the violence of the book, and my own horror at learning that such violence was at the root of my country’s history. Of course I knew about slavery and the Civil War, but most history classes are a lesson primarily in sugarcoating, if not in outright lies. Still, lucky me, to have lived so long so blithely unaware.
At seventeen, though, I was primed to see violence everywhere: through copious amounts crime shows I watched each evening, so fond of their pretty dead girls of the week, but also day after day in my own life: sexual harassment in the hallways at school; teachers getting caught, year after year, exploiting and molesting their students; the slurs and whistles and slow creeping of cars weekly (daily?) on my way home from school.
I also remember the sexuality, and sensuality, depicted in the book—Sethe, bare to her waist, Paul D.’s hands cupping her breasts, her back a ragged tree-shaped scar; Beloved, eerie and sideways and wrong, seducing Paul D., saying words that it made my legs clench to read, my palms sweat. Morrison’s writing of sex: sometimes vibrant, sometimes lurid, always so viscerally rendered. Sexuality and violence, beautiful and terrible, interwoven at precisely the moment the two were coming to a head for me in my own life: a seventeen year old girl is on the brink of her own sexual awakening (the first of many), and no one will let her for one minute forget it.
I knew about slavery and the Civil War, but most history classes are a lesson primarily in sugarcoating, if not in outright lies.
My first reading of Beloved was, of course, too personal, too intimate. When I think about the book now, and my initial response to it, I’m embarrassed by my reaction. My body has always been mine, even through experiences of objectification, of exotification, of violence. Despite my mixed race heritage, the misogyny I’ve experienced has been absent a racial bent. And though part of my self-indulgence can be explained by my being a highly sensitive seventeen-year-old at the time—I wept while reading how Sethe’s milk was stolen from her, and spent days afterward preoccupied with the barbarity of that violation—when I read Beloved now, I keep in mind the words of New York Times Magazine writer Rachel Kaadzi Gansah. In a profile of Toni Morrison that ran in April 2015, she writes, “…Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, ‘You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.’”
I read the novel again recently. In my literature class in high school we spent a long time discussing Sethe’s decision to kill her children in order to keep them from slavery, the monstrosity of her love. We were, as teenagers tend to be, obsessed with passing judgment: whether Sethe’s choices were “right” or “wrong.” I suppose beneath the impetus to make that call was another question: How monstrous is our own country’s history? Better, or worse, than a mother whose love is “too thick”?
On my recent reread, though, that is the question farthest from my mind. Beloved was not written for me, and I feel an uncomfortable sense of appropriation in trying to describe its impact on my developing social awareness. As I read, I was reminded of the protests after Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore, of the video of the woman who slapped her son for protesting (“rioting,” said nearly every news source that covered it). She was heralded as “mother of the year,” for “beating some sense” into her child. “I’m a single mother with one son,” Toya Graham explained on Facebook after the video went viral. “He will not be Freddie Gray.”
I was reminded, too, of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. In it, he discusses suffering abuse from his father’s hands as a child, and I thought of how easy that violence is to condemn when you don’t—when you can’t—understand the fear that drives it, as if it is a cycle of violence somehow disconnected from the cycle of violence the United States’ entire history spins on.
Beloved also taught me about violence, and how the body internalizes experiences of trauma as memory and rememory: things we cannot escape, that we must instead confront.
Studies have shown that reading literary fiction contributes to a greater sense of empathy in the reader. According to psychologist David Comer Kidd, “Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.” This has been my experience reading Beloved. It was the first book that taught me to look outside myself, to place myself within the greater context of the world I live in. What privileges do I have? What legacy am I a part of? My ancestors had not yet arrived in the U.S. during the events of the novel, but that doesn’t mean we do not, in the present, experience the racial history of this country, or that we are not simultaneously sheltered from it because of our white privilege.
Beloved also taught me about violence, and how the body internalizes experiences of trauma as memory and rememory: things we cannot escape, that we must instead confront. It taught me about history—whether in terms of one’s personal history, or within a larger social construct — how it is never over, how it haunts us, how it is our responsibility as humans striving for a better world to acknowledge the grisly nature of what came before, and to hold ourselves accountable even at the expense of our own comfort.
Beloved is not for me, but I owe so much to Beloved. I hesitate to say that it’s like a friend I made long ago, who influenced me powerfully, because as woo-woo as I can sometimes be, I hesitate to call books “friends.” Perhaps instead, Beloved is like the memory of a place I visited in my adolescence. The experience of reading Beloved was a profound one; it’s something I think about, sometimes now and then, sometimes often, always with the feeling that I should go back, pick it up again, see how it has changed, and how I have changed, since we first met.