I’m not about to write a review of this book. Enough essays have been written on it. Enough people before me have said it is amazing. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was ranked as the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006 by a New York Times survey of writers and literary critics. The quality of this book is not and will never be in doubt. So I have to wonder: how did I not hear about it before?
I’ll admit two things here. First, I have never been good on keeping up with authors and reading in my genre. I tend to read whatever I stumble on and hope for the best. Only in the last two years have I started reading more intentionally, trying to find books that will shape my world and thoughts. If I could go back in time, I would have been more intentional about my reading from a young age, but trying to change the past is impossible. So I can only go forward picking books that will broaden my perspective.
Second, and related to the first, is I have never sought out works by authors of color. Only in the past two years have I started reading Octavia Butler, Alice Walker, and now Toni Morrison. I can blame my teachers for not introducing me to these writers. I can blame society for not showcasing them. But it comes down to the fact that I never sought them out. They were available. Published. Blogged about. If I had looked earlier, I would have found them.
I’m of the opinion no one should have to “go looking” for writing like this. Butler’s Kindred, Walker’s Temple of My Familiar, and Morrison’s Beloved should be talked about, as should so many other books that center the experience of black people. They should be taught in high school, discussed in college. These books need to become part of who we are, because the stories they contain are stories of America and the world. The more we sweep these books into a separate genre that we have to go looking for, the more we sweep black people to the side. And that needs to stop.
On Trauma and Cultural Memory
During my last year at university, one of my most memorable instructors brushed too quickly over Walter Benjamin and cultural memory. Since then, I’ve wanted to explore more about the physicality of generational memory. The trauma our grandparents experienced still creeps up in our lives, and this is the first book I’ve read that shows generational trauma clearly. Morrison lays out exactly how the mother passes her trauma onto her children in a way that I’ve known in the back of my mind, but never been able to articulate. She doesn’t only articulate it, but blows it wide open, dissects it, and puts it back together.
So many white people argue that slavery ended generations ago. We don’t understand the need for reparations. After all, these were things our great great grandparents did. There is nothing we could have done to stop it. But it isn’t our place to stop it. To go back in time and fix it. It’s our place to recognize the how trauma trickles down through families and communities. Taking place 150 years ago, this book shows the cracks in our society and the ways we try to cover them.
On Pictures In a White Reader’s Mind
I don’t often hold pictures in my mind. I’m not a visual person. I don’t get images when I read or write. But with this book, one thing I noticed, was that it was difficult to hold the main characters as black in my mind. When my empathy swelled up, I imagined white women going through those impossible situations. It’s something I caught about a quarter of the way through the book and challenged myself to stop doing.
Some people might say it’s good to put yourself into the story. To see these things happening to yourself. Sure, I agree to a point. But for so long white society in the US has ignored black communities. Forcing myself to remember the characters are black starts to create empathy and understanding for black people. It’s not enough to say trauma is bad. It is important to recognize where it has landed, who has inflicted it, and how it continues to exist today. That means not just feeling bad for things that happened, but being able to hold empathy for people who look different than we do.
There is so much to love in Morrison’s writing. Also, I listened to the audio book and her voice is amazing. I highly recommend it. The one thing that completely sunk me, though, was her ability to build empathy in a reader. Her circular writing technique (one of the most difficult to pull off) is flawless, and it allows the reader to sink slowly into the characters. We start at the surface, on what every American knows of slavery: it was bad, terrible things happened. Then she creates this spiral, going deeper and deeper into the heart of the matter.
No other book has sparked quite as much empathy in me as this one has.
Now, of all times, I think we can use more empathy. So if you haven’t read it, give it a go. If you have, maybe it’s time to pick it up again.
Of course Beloved is a hard read. There are so many tragic events and pain in it. But at its core, it is a book of hope. Denver, stepping out of her mother’s trauma and embracing her community is a sign of the way we can change. If we recognize trauma for what it is, we can break cycles and heal.
As a note, I couldn’t bring myself to put a cover over this picture. The edition of Beloved illustrated by Joe Morse is gorgeous. I highly recommend looking through the illustrations after (or while) reading the book.