On Literary Censorship: Toni Morrison’s Beloved
It’s almost impossible to talk about banned books without discussing Toni Morrison. For last year’s series I discussed her first novel, Bluest Eye, and its focus on the struggle just to be seen and heard as an equal in a society that would rather smother you to silence. This year, in asking around for suggestions on the series, the one that kept coming up was Beloved, the story of an escaped slave’s struggle for survival in the Antebellum south and the nearly unspeakable lengths she goes to to protect her children. It seems we’ve all read it and loved it for the uncomfortable power it possesses. The one thing truest about all of Morrison’s works is her ability to take a universal truth, boil it down to an individual experience, and give every unflinching minute detail. Toni Morrison doesn’t care about your comfort level with her work, she cares about getting the stories of the Black experience out there in the world in the way they should be told: no sugar coating, no euphemism, just the truth from the mouth of someone who lived it.
With Beloved, Morrison took hold of the idea of telling uncomfortable truths through the lens of experience a step further than in her previous novels. Sethe, our main character, is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, a slave in pre-Civil War America who escaped and, upon capture by US Marshals, attempted to kill all of her children and herself rather than return to slavery. The only child she successfully killed was her two-year-old.
Beloved is, above all else, a story of love and trauma. A love judged “too thick” by most everyone around her and a trauma so deep and multilayered it’s almost impossible to see clearly to the other side of it. It’s about the ghosts that haunt, and how to live with them. About the impossibly sharp and evolving power of memory, how far we’d go to remember, and how far we’d go to forget. It’s a snapshot of the brutality of a moment in American history that shaped us from its inception. Consider, before passing judgment, if you were in Sethe’s — in Margaret Garner’s — shoes, how far would you go to protect your children from the hands of people who’s only interest is to chew them up for all they’re worth and spit them out a desiccated shell on the other side?
Beloved has a complex and somewhat contradictory history, simultaneously hailed as one of the most important memorializing works of the Black experience during the slave trade and one of the most frequently banned or challenged in schools. The most recent challenge, in Virginia in 2016 by state senator Richard Black, described the novel as “moral sewage” and led to the passing of a bill which requires teachers to notify parents when books contain sexually explicit content, ultimately making Virginia the first state to give parents the right to opt their children out of reading novels.
I’ve read Beloved just once before, although it seems to have been long enough ago that I didn’t remember much of anything about it, plot wise. The one thing that stuck with me was the image of Sethe’s scars on her back in the shape of the chokecherry tree, blossoms and all. A permanent reminder of paralyzed growth for all but her to see. This time around what sticks with me most is Denver and her relationship to the ghost that haunts their house. Denver knows what Sethe did to her sister. Denver drank her sister’s blood along with her mother’s milk as a baby in the moment of Sethe’s unraveling. She knows who the ghost is and has adapted to its presence so that she finds it more of a comfort than a nuisance. She loves and fears her mother, who has something inside her that could come out again at any moment if pushed too far, permitting her the madness necessary to make another attempt to kill her children, and she loves but does not fear the ghost of her petulant dead sister, wreaking havoc on a house she never got to inhabit to its fullest.
Denver wants more than anything to protect. Protect herself, protect her sister, protect her mother. When Paul D scares away the ghost in their house — her only true companion who lived outside the range of her mother’s all-consuming memory — she is enraged and keenly lonely. Where Sethe had simply made due with the presence who demanded attention and isolated them from the rest of the community, Denver found it comforting. Sethe, after the death of her baby and until its apparent return, did not allow herself to feel anything too sharply — or even to see colors — but Denver feels everything fiercely. Including the knowledge of the violence against her sister, which consumed her so completely it made her numb and silent for years.
The most fascinating aspect of Beloved is its duality of violence. Against the backdrop of senseless and intense violence as a method of power expression committed by people who see her as little better than an animal, a woman makes a choice born from all the love in her heart to try and spare her children the fate of the chokecherry tree that follows on her back. The fate of being compared to and treated like or less than an animal. The fate of torture that ends only in either death or madness, if not both. And for her efforts she is met with fear and isolation from all sides, though some of those who have been in her position understand and do not necessarily condemn nor approve her actions.
There is also a distinct line drawn between the overarching power of motherhood and the effect of men’s presence. Paul D telling Sethe she has “two legs not four” when he finds out what she did was the ultimate insult, aligning him a little with the schoolroom of boys who were being taught to pick her apart and examine what makes her human and what makes her animalistic, the first straw in her decision to protect her children no matter the cost. Baby Suggs, holy, is the matriarch of the house that gives Sethe her freedom, the mother of her husband, the grandmother of her children, and the ultimate bearer of love for the town and its people who rose from the same situation she did, regardless of how they managed to do it. Sethe’s husband Halle is rendered helpless and mindless in the face of the brutality he witnesses, hidden away, as his wife is raped by the schoolboys while the teacher stands back and takes notes. Every good man in the story is rendered helpless or driven mad by the acts of violence of the men in charge who want their power known. The only true freedom from it is escape, whether that escape comes from madness, running, or death.
Beloved’s interest in telling the unabashed reality of its characters necessarily means it’s doomed to end on a less than happy note, and one, in fact, mirrored in the act of unending attempts to challenge or ban the consumption of the work as a whole. “This is not a story to be passed on” it states on its final pages, and indeed there are parents and lawmakers out there who would love nothing more than its smothering out of existence. But it does need to be passed on, to be remembered, to be preserved. This is a woman’s life, the life of every person she touched, the life of the house that brought her a freedom that even as she managed it was tinged with death.
A haunted house that cannot be exorcised with yelling and breaking things. A spirit that will only yell louder the more you try to ignore it, demanding to make its memory known. As much as we may not want to acknowledge it anymore, to sweep it under the rug and label it inappropriate and too much for children being taught to think critically about the world around them, her name is Beloved and she is ours.
Read my first entry in this year’s Banned Book Series, on Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, here.