Black Literature Day: Re-Discovering Beloved by Toni Morrison

October 19, 2023


“In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory bound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” – Toni Morrison, Beloved.

Toni Morrison is my favorite author of all time. Her work has seen me, heard me, felt me and left me with language, but not the kind I speak or write, the kind that settles in between my bones like all personal truths do. There are so many reviews, reports and scholarly articles about this book, its many themes a bountiful fodder for analysis and reflection among students, writers and academics. So this isn’t a review, it’s a reiteration of the book’s importance to our contemporary struggle for equality and our humanity. 

Set in the years following the American Civil War, Beloved is a story about Sethe (pronounced Seth-Uh), an escaped slave who along with her daughter Denver, lives in a house haunted by the ghost of her deceased daughter, known only as Beloved. Everything changes when someone from Sethe’s past awakens a new haunting they did not expect. I could tell you more, but just in case you haven’t read Beloved, discover it without much influence, just like I did, allow it to surprise and even devastate. 

My first time reading Beloved was only a few short years ago and though I wished that I’d read it sooner, I was grateful to experience it with some of my life lived first. The themes and writing are so layered, so ineffable and viscous that I’m not surprised at the reaction I often get when I tell people, specifically other Black women that I’m reading Beloved. As soon as the words leave my mouth there is usually a shared look, a sigh or a groan acknowledging that yes, it’s a small yet heavy book, yes.. it rocked our worlds and loosed a grief almost too palpable for a story from so long ago. 

I love the smell of books, but with this re-read I opted for a different intimacy, the unexpected comfort and pleasure of hearing Toni Morrison read me her book. It’s been quite a revelation to hear her silences, her punctuations and inflections or how she embodies the characters she loves, when she reads their parts.

“Do like baby said, think on it then lay it down for good.” – Sethe in Beloved. 

Toni and Beloved the work, doesn’t just master the art of language to tell this story, it creates a syntax that trusts the reader to learn its code. Beloved doesn’t just offer this language for the pain we wish we did not have to know so intimately, but it kicks up the dust of chattel slavery and shows us that even though it has ended, the specks of this unequal world remain lodged in our lungs. 

“Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past.” – Sethe in Beloved 

This helps you comprehend slavery impact through both the lens of the unimaginable trauma on Black slaves but also through the incredible worldbuilding Toni does. I’ve written on trauma’s impact, but I think this book and these characters bring home how much healing we must all do. We’ve learned that our bodies store trauma, but Black people know that we don’t just walk around with our individual concerns– there is also the collective or ancestral, that comes with generational rage and unmet-unheard needs. 

“…who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb, and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart—which she put to work at once.”  – about Baby Suggs in Beloved

Black literature has fueled our revolutions, educating us on the past, keeping us on the pulse of the present or helping us imagine a free future. Black authors and their stories become the balm needed to exist in a world that survives on subjugation of the “other”. In revolution we rely on literature to help us name and share the injustices we experience or the joy that is possible. The double edged sword of understanding our pain is the weary of sharing it, a price we’ll gladly pay.  

Contested and Banned

“The same sensibilities that informed those people to make it a criminal act for Black people to read are the ancestors of the same people who are making it a criminal act for their own children to read. There is some hysteria associated with the idea of reading that is all out of proportion to what is in fact happening when one reads.”  Toni Morrison on book bans

Beloved among other Toni Morrison titles is one the most frequently contested books, almost always making its way to the official banned books list. Resourced, conservative and tenacious groups have consistently lobbied to not only put a stop to critical race theory being taught in schools but also to stop the work that centers marginalized voices too. Books related to race, gender, sexuality and other-ness have seemingly found a way to be villainized and in so doing, the project of erasing what language we do have for the past, for the now, persists. 

What worries the ignorant about this book is that Beloved never shies away from saying it like it was and in many ways still is. Toni found many ways to tell us this story and stood ten toes down on calling the oppressors what they– illustrating how a former slave woman would rather see her children dead than be unfree. 

“Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named Mister. But wasn’t no way I’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.”  – Paul D in Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Toni and her characters landed on many solid truths that punctuate the almost daily grief we live with– that though much has changed, so much has not and so much can easily be reversed. Police brutality is still rife as a remnant of white slave patrols, the rights and liberties of Black people are still an international debate and most tragic is being witness to gaslighting or slavery denial, like the past was irrelevant and something to forget for the comfort of those who benefitted the most.

Timeless and Contemporary

When you dig into this book you might find yourself wondering, just like I did, how she brought to life the emotional world of each character or how she could create such visceral scenes from a long gone landscape that I could feel like I was there. 

You’d wonder if white supremacy’s grip on our reality has stood so strong and ‘true’ that any work of the past could ring like the hollow of a bell. Just like me, maybe you’d settle on the fact that It’s probably a little of both and a lot of everything. 

Nothing new, just the impact and power of books. I do however find it quite special for Black the world over, who have faced so much erasure of their identity, people, culture, language and even selves to persist in the naming and creating language to reconstruct something they can belong to.

“ Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…” – Baby Suggs, holy.