Toni Morrison’s Beloved



Toni Morrison returned to the subject of self-hatred and racism in her profound novel about slavery—Beloved. This is surely one of the classic novels of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most shocking novels you will ever read.

I want to give a warning here as I will spoil the ending for those who want to read it. I find that unavoidable. In that book a mother—Sethe—escaped from slavery with her two daughters Denver and Beloved. But when the slavers who were tracking them found them, Sethe did the unthinkable—she tried to kill her daughters. She took Beloved to the shed and cut her throat with a saw to save her from slavery, by killing her. Here is Morrison’s incredibly powerful description of that scene:

“Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it…Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning—that Beloved might leave. That before Seth could make her understand what it meant—what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life—Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that—far worse—was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dream about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled the daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.”

These are things that a system of racism can accomplish. No individual acts of racism could do this.

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