the blackness of Beloved

Why am I having such a hard time making progress in Beloved?

I think my difficulty is partially in the content, which is often hauntingly violent and harshly sexual, but more significantly in the barely subtle sense that I do not belong.

I read a wholly captivating piece about Toni Morrison in April, in which she briefly explains the purpose of her books. She prioritizes their place in African-American tradition, culture, and then storytelling, refusing to “diversify or die.”

She makes a bold (and starkly true) statement about not being required or obligated to adjust her work for the common population or place of comfort. The (white, male) authors sure didn’t.

So as I read Beloved, I know that I don’t really belong. I can’t truly understand the complexities of a family with a ghost in their house, but more importantly, I can’t understand the complexities of a black family with the ghost of slavery still right behind them and breathing down their necks.

It is impossible to not see Beloved as an inherently black book, yet so many of my white friends would shy away from this description. I’ve read so many pieces on race this past year and a few have really changed my mind on what I previously saw or said I didn’t, but more importantly, I’m taking my own experiences, thoughts, and conversations and forming my own opinion.

I see color around me. I see the color of my friends’ skin. To say I didn’t would be to ignore their stories and pasts and futures. I see that many of my friends are white and a few aren’t. I don’t really know what to make of that. I crave diversity of opinion, background, and interest among my friends, and their skin colors come along with that. I value my friends of color because they teach me everyday. I am humbled by them, and I realize my voice doesn’t necessarily belong in their story. I often really should just listen.

Beloved allows me to glimpse into the black world of the late 19th century. Toni Morrison is adept at her descriptions, but not self-indulgent. There is a sense of assumption in her books, an undertone that says, “Well, you know what I mean.”

The fact is: I don’t. I don’t think I can read or analyze or discuss Beloved as well as my black friends. Because I don’t get it. And that’s okay. I am given the opportunity by Ms. Morrison to look at her world. The aforementioned article describes her work as such:

“But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, “You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.” Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on.”

I think my job, as a (white, female) reader, is to respect that and read and glean what I can from her writings. But more importantly, understand that I will never fully understand. We, as analytical literary consumers, attempt to make meaning out of these works, but honestly can rarely understand the author’s purest intentions. We are left to make educated guesses and inferences. That is the case with a lot of books, but does not make them any less worth reading.

I’ll let you know when I finish Beloved. It should be soon.

update:

I finished a while ago, and it left me breathless. Here’s a playlist to accompany it. I tried to capture the aching soul behind the characters.

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