1987 - Beloved
There are two questions lingering in my mind now, days after finishing Beloved, that I cannot answer.
One: What would I do--what could I do--to protect my child from an imminent horror which I myself have experienced?
The second question is one that I wish did not need an answer. One that should not need to be asked in 2016; one that should never have been a question that made any sense at any time on earth.
Two: Why is the first question one that black parents are faced with repeatedly, incessantly, in the form of ongoing racial violence in this country?
This is not a question I can answer. But it is not one that can be ignored, invalidated through victim-blaming. It is unconscionable that this quotation from a Civil War-era black man could be just as relevant from one alive today:
"Tell me something, Stamp." Paul D's eyes were rheumy. "Tell me this one thing. How much is a n***** supposed to take? Tell me. How much?"
"All he can," said Stamp Paid. "All he can."
"Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?"
I know already that Beloved will stay with me. The story is--quite literally--haunting. Sethe and her daughter, Denver, live in an old house on the edge of Cincinnati shortly after the end of the Civil War. But even after Sethe's sons left and her mother-in-law died, they didn't live there alone. A spirit resides in the house. The spirit of Sethe's other daughter, the one she was carrying in her belly when she escaped slavery, the one who died tragically at 10 months old. For a long time Denver and Sethe keep to themselves, separated from the rest of the local black community by self-consciousness and stigma. But when Paul D arrives and exorcises the spirit from the house there is a glimmer of hope, freedom, and peace, at last. All that ends when a strange girl calling herself Beloved appears and claims the family for her own.
It was no surprise to me that Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years after Beloved was published. Her writing is eerie, evocative, lyrical, powerful. Her characters are portraits rendered in fine, perceptive, sensitive detail. I was enraptured by the plot, the next page always beckoning like the crooked finger of someone whose face is just out of view. In a way I am glad that I somehow had never read Beloved until now. If the rest of this year-long reading challenge produces nothing of substance, at least I can look back here and know it was worth it.
I recommend Beloved to readers who want something moving and are not afraid to face both difficult questions and truly horrifying violence and phantoms. I've listed a few read-alikes below. All three selections have the same high-quality writing as Beloved. Quicksand and Passing and The Wide Sargasso Sea are also about the perseverance of black women in cruel circumstances. Quicksand and Passing (two novellas, usually published together) take place in 1920s New York while The Wide Sargasso Sea is a retelling of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the "madwoman" in the attic. Finally, The Road is another book that easily could be categorized in the horror genre. It seeks to find the limits to what a father will and can do for his son when faced with utter hopelessness.
- Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen
- The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Keep turning the page,