TONI MORRISON — BELOVED — 1987
REMEMORIED DISREMEMBERED MEMORIES
This novel was declared a masterpiece of English literature, but of course, we all understand that it is a masterpiece of Black American literature too, or probably first of all. We could, and probably should also qualify it as a masterpiece of women’s literature, both as for the author and as for the central characters. That is supposed to make you humble, all the more because the true story behind this novel is considered as the drama of an American Black Medea (Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio, Ohio University Press; 2016). The core of this story is simple. A woman slave escapes and finds refuge with her three kids plus a newborn in Arkansas. Her husband (unmarried of course since marriage was not performed for black slaves in the English colonies and later the United States of America) disappeared on the day of the escape. A team of slavecatchers comes after her one month later and tries to re-appropriate the children. The mother hurts her two sons, kills the toddler daughter and menaces to smash the head of the newborn. The newborn is saved by the black man who helped her cross the river to Arkansas, the local sheriff arrests the mother and the slave-catching posse goes back home empty-handed. The mother is sent to prison with the newborn and she will eventually be released.
The traditional explanation is that the mother who had escaped slavery could not accept her children to be sent back into it, and to guarantee their freedom, she decided to kill them. This is, of course, insane, but the insanity is not on the side of the mother but on the side of slavery. When Toni Morrison decided to use this true story for this novel she processed the story with creativity and she tried to get into the psyche of the main characters, particularly the mother, Seshe, the newborn, Denver, and the dead toddler she treats as a ghost, Beloved. Seshe’s mother in law, Baby Suggs, is also widely used in some periods of the story. She is free in Arkansas and enjoys a house entrusted to her by a white family, a brother, and a sister, and she survives with small chores performed for white people in Cincinnati, washing, ironing, darning, and repairing shoes. Toni Morrison also uses a man, Paul D. who was a slave with Baby Suggs and he is the one who remembers that time. Baby Suggs was bought free by her own son, Halle Suggs, the only child out of eight (from six fathers) she was allowed to keep. He did extra work outside the plantation where he was a slave to buy the freedom of his mother, a rare case of manumission in the English colonies turned United States. Seshe’s two sons will go away from their mother as soon as they are able to devise a way to survive on such an escape road.
The dates are difficult at times to follow. 1855, Baby Suggs gets free and moves to Arkansas. 1864 Seshe and her children escape from Slavery to Arkansas, their mother-in-law and grandmother. The main action is in 1973–74 when Paul D. arrives at the house to get connected to Seshe. He is the last surviving male slave of the small plantation. That is also when Beloved reappears on the porch of the house and is welcomed inside by Seshe and Denver, not by Paul D. who is not the master of the house after all. Having said that I will not tell the rest of the story, but I will try to analyze what makes this story a masterpiece of female Black American literature.
The whole story is based on a word that is used several times: “It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else.” (page 43) This word that can also be a verb, find an echo in another verb: “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name?” (page 323) The whole book turns around this particular human dimension, memory. The main characters are all black and they all have lived through slavery that was only banned something like eight years before the main events. For the past to come back to life, either an old memory must be brought back to life, hence it has to be re-memoried. In the same way, most of these memories are simply locked up away in their memory and the Blacks just will never mention them in public or not to anyone at all. Paul D explains this dis-remembering procedure: “
It was some time before he could put Alfred, Georgia, Sixo, schoolteacher, Halle, his brothers, Sethe, Mister, the taste of iron, the sight of butter, the smell of hickory, notebook paper, one by one, into the tobacco tin lodged in his chest. By the time he got to 124 nothing in this world could pry it open.” (page 133)
These memories are locked up inside you as if you were a deposit box whose key you had lost, then haunt the person in their present life and prevent them from having a future. What they have done or what they have suffered is taking them hostage and they will always behave manipulated or even tortured by these memories they have dis-remembered. That is why the book is difficult to follow because it does not have an obvious timeline. You constantly shift from one time to another with little indication about the shift and the period you find yourself in, and at the same time, you shift from one character to another, the character that is re-memorying. There is no real telling about the past, but rather memories come back to the mind of one character in a certain situation and this character just remembers in his/her own mind what it was like back then. Toni Morrison is actually graphic about it. But follow how the past is coming back. Baby Suggs, the grandmother, is conscious, 28 days after the arrival of Seshe and her children, on the morning after the day she had thrown a feast to celebrate their arrival, while cleaning up and working in the garden that she is feeling something menacing is coming and this triggers her memory.
“So, Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not. “God take what he would,” she said. He did, and He did, and He did and then gave her Halle who gave her freedom when it didn’t mean a thing…” (page 28)
“What could it be? This dark and coming thing. What was left to hurt her now? News of Halle’s death? No. She had been prepared for that better than she had for his life. The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own — fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like, or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty lose her lisp? What color did Famous’ skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny’s chin or just a dimple that would disappear soon’s his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at that youngest one? But for some reason they let her keep him. He was with her — everywhere.” (page164)
The whole secret of the book is in this presence-absence of slavery in this Cincinnati society where the present events take place. They do not tell anyone about it. They keep it secret deep in their hearts and their lives are turned sour, bitter, inedible by these memories they have learned how to dis-remember. You can then imagine the disruption when the killed daughter, wearing the age she would have had if she had not been killed, arrived in the family. She knows too much to be a stranger. And she wants to get her vengeance. She hesitates for a while between killing Seshe or dominating her into a new type of slavery: enslavement to her guilt and to her dead daughter who is getting rid of all witnesses who could intervene. Only Denver stays to protect her mother because she knows, she has seen it, Beloved is capable of killing her out of vengeance. A rare piece of dialogue between Denver and Beloved, after Beloved has tried to kill Seshe:
“You did it, I saw you,” said Denver.
“I saw your face. You made her choke.”
“I didn’t do it.”
”You told me you loved her.”
“I fixed it, didn’t I Didn’t I fix her neck?”
“After. After you choked her neck.”
“I kissed her neck. I didn’t choke it. The circle of iron choked it.”
“I saw you,” Denver grabbed Beloved’s arm.
“Look out, girl,” said Beloved and, snatching her arm away, and ran as fast as she could along the stream that sang on the other side of the woods.” (page 119)
There are also episodes about lynching that are probably slightly too gross to be quoted here but could be to show how the method to curb the slaves was simple: use one rebellious one as an example of what you can do in such slow killing, torturing, maiming and amputating, slicing up, eviscerating, etc. What is important is the everlasting and haunting pictures these moments represent for the slaves. And these moments, these memories are living forever, from one generation to the next, as real “souvenirs” from this past. This is the simple description of Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome or Disorder. And we do have to come back to it because in 1987 that was absolutely avant-garde in the field of sociological and psychiatric studies of Black communities. But it is not a purely Black problem, far from it, since the originators were all whites, since Black people were brought here by force against their will, and these Black people were enslaved here for the sole profit of the white planters who owned them as chattel, at best chattel that could speak, and was punished most of the time for it. Here is one instance of Toni Morrison’s explanation of this PTSS for the whites.
“White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he [Stamp Paid, the black man who brought Seshe across the river to Arkansas] thought, they were right. The more colored people spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something N****** believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle white folks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.” (page 234)
There is a black version of this PTSS and there is a white version of the same PTSS. This PTSS is worse than a coronavirus of any sort because social distancing is not enough to solve the problem. And the solution is not in this book because this book only concentrates on black characters who are the victims of this PTSS imposed by the whites and their slavery. There are very few white characters who actually show some empathy and volunteer to help, though they cannot help by changing the American society that does not really want to change. They can only help one person, now and then, escape slavery before 1865, or escape perdition and misery after 1865. True enough, one Black person helped out of his or her misery is a brick on the golden road to some liberated OZ country. But is there any hope?
“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?” (page 277)
And we are not talking in abstract terms. We are talking in KKK terms, in the terms of the most gruesome and violent, criminal in one word, political movement of southern whites, the Ku Klux Klan, mind you.
“Eighteen seventy-four and white folks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken. He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank… the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons.
What a roaring.” (page 212–213)
And we have to remember it is what happened to Seshe’s mother: she was hanged and burned to some unrecognizable mass of carbonized bones and other matter that was not even buried, just dropped in some hole and covered up with earth in an unmarked and unremembered spot. Black children and other slaves were forced to watch the lynching for it to be most effective as an example set for them to behave, obey, submit, even expect punishment. And Seshe’s carries on her back the testimony of her whipping.
“It’s a tree, Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk — it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder… Maybe I ought to break them blossoms open. Get that puss to running, you think? Wonder what God had in mind. You must of did something.” (page 93–94)
This being said, note the way the Blacks do speak some Black English. Toni Morrison without going all the way to the real Black dialect the slaves spoke, gives us enough small marks of this Black English they speak. Her characters do not speak mid-Atlantic English. They are real Black characters, though not too much, otherwise, they might not be understood at all by the readers, I mean the white readers.
Without wondering too much about the way to get out of this PTSS, for the Blacks at least, the only suggestion that comes along, and this suggestion is basic in today’s treatment for this PTSS that is still strong and powerful among Blacks, just as much as the similar PTSS is strong and powerful among white folks, even today, at least some of them, even at the top of the social hierarchy, this suggestion is that all this locked up recollection of such painful memories has to be shifted from dis-remembered to remembered and these disremembered memories have to be rememoried. I am using Toni Morrison’s words because they are perfect to express the trauma and the key to free that trauma out and liberate the traumatized persons. They have to tell to members of their communities about such traumatic events, otherwise, they will be haunted by myriads of ghosts, and if you try to frighten the ghosts away they might, like Beloved, take flesh and come back to turn you into a sleep-walking corpse on parole from your tomb. Toni Morrison is here advocating the central solution, the first and most crucial step to freedom from PTSlaverySS that the Nation of Islam has devised: remember with other members of your community and tell what comes back to your memory. Search your past, as far as you can, to before 1865 if you can and to the time of slavery to reconstruct your ancestors and tell the group that is helping you remember, and then look for the positive points in this past marked with alienation, violence, injustice, deculturation, and from this positive reconstruction you might find the solution out of it, you might break the cherry blossoms on your back and free the pus from them. I have not seen any suggested treatment for PTSlaverySS for white descendants of slave-owners. True enough, it might be difficult for them to go back to those old days and find anything positive in their dealing with slaves. The remembering is supposed to be cathartic, but Medea killed her own children because her love for Jason was betrayed by Jason himself. Seshe killed Beloved out of love, for her not to go back to slavery, hence for Beloved to be free from slavery. It was an irrational action, but it was motivated by love, and that’s why Seshe fell under the total domination of Beloved when the latter came back from beyond her tomb.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU