Beloved, a reflection

Reading Toni Morrison is always a transformative experience, rereading her is even more so.

I had the pleasure of re-reading Beloved; a work I once found so impenetrable I was now, as an adult, able to enter with a steadier grasp that turned into profound appreciation. From the language to the characters, Morrison takes the horrifically triumphant tale of Margaret Garner and creates a world magnificent with complexity, sorrow, and healing. It was the latter that I newly discovered, which absolutely spellbound me by the time I reached the end.

This reading of Beloved gave me a deeper appreciation for Morrison’s emphasis on safe spaces. Beloved is full of them from Sethe’s keeping room where she does her introspection, to Denver’s secret garden, to Baby Sugg’s clearing space in the woods. Each of these women have a place that offer brief respites from the horror surrounding them. It reminded me that in the midst of turmoil, survival of the self is essential. These safe spaces allowed room for these women to be, to breathe, so that they could continue forth in a world rife with oppression, violence, and emotional trauma.

As equally important, Morrison also makes the case for the necessity of self-love. Baby Suggs is perhaps the best vehicle through which Morrison delivers this sermon. In that clearing space in the woods Baby Suggs urges for the black townspeople to love their heart, for “more than the lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your live-giving private parts…love your heart. For this is the prize.” Such declaration to former slaves and descendants of slaves is revolutionary as not only are they “legally” property and thought of to not be fully human, but they lived in an environment that did not breed neither love, nor joy, nor peace. And despite all of that, Baby Suggs tell all of these individuals to resists the temptation to be consumed by such trauma and, instead, rise in love.

Sethe and Denver both have to understand this in the face of their Beloved for whom they sacrifice themselves for. Denver’s discovery of her own self and the fight to preserve that self is what allows her to experience the most dynamic evolution of all the characters. It is also what helps keep her mother and sister alive. It’s a truth we’re reminded of by every flight attendant whosever demonstrated to you how to ensure the survival of yourself and loved one should the flight go awry—place the oxygen on yourself first, for without the preservation of yourself there is no hope for the survival of those who come after you.

In a novel filled with trauma, calls for self-love are laden throughout. It is what I believe to be Morrison’s call to action. Her definition of resistance is self-preservation. I’m reminded of such especially toward the end of the novel when, after Sethe has given almost life, limb, and sanity for her child who she defines as her “best thing,” Paul D reminds Sethe that it is her own self that is her “best thing.”

The testament of a truly remarkable piece of writing is when you can return to it at various moments in your life and extract different lessons along the way. It is also true that the right book will always find you at the right moment. Beloved did that for me and Morrison reminded me how important the self is and how, as Audre Lorde also says, self-preservation is the very act of political warfare.

Reading Challenge update: This is the second book I’ve completed in my challenge. I began with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

Advertisements

Ain’t I A Mother: Motherhood as Freedom in ‘Underground’

mothers
WGN’s ‘Underground’

It’s been a while (a long, looong while) but I’m back with some thoughts to share, specifically regarding Underground. I love the show since the premiere and that love has required a lot of defending against haters. But now that the season has ended I’ve had time to mull over a lot of the things that struck me and one of those things is motherhood. Season one presents us with three black women who are slaves on a Georgia plantation. What’s unique about these women is their declaration of motherhood, a right not afforded to them due to their being, legally, property. That declaration of motherhood is a form of freedom as violently toiled for as physically escaping the plantation.

Toni Morrison first presented the argument for motherhood as freedom in her novel, Beloved. Morrison looks at real-life Margaret Garner and how her decision to kill her child was Garner’s defense against slavery and assertion of motherhood. I believe, in their own way, the mothers of Underground are odes to Garner and mothers alike in the age of slavery who did not allow an institution of hate and violence bar them from claiming, loving, and protecting their children.

You can read my piece on Catapult!

 

Dear Queen Morrison,

toni morrison

It is with trepidation that I write this. A familiar trepidation that arises in me every time I attempt to deconstruct, analyze, or appreciate your work. I know I am unworthy and without the masterful use of metaphor, language, and syntax that God seems to have exclusively gifted to you, but in the spirit of your many beautifully flawed and defiant female characters: despite my short-comings I insist on saying what I have to say, which is thank you.

  Praise for your overall genius is nothing new for you, I wonder if it even gets old after a while, but I do have to confess that when I first encountered a novel of yours in the ninth grade “genius” was the last adjective I thought to describe you. But like the good word says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man/woman, I gave up childish ways,” and eventually I had seen the light of the intricate maze of plots you set in the beautiful, dangerous, and mysterious landscape of  your language.

The spirit of fearlessness that I’ve found in all of your work from Pilot to Consolata is inspiring and affirming—no one does a complex black woman like you. No one penetrates the taboo and exposes its good, its bad, and its ugly like you. And no one confidently refuses to explain their work like you do:

“I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books” – Toni Morrison 

suddenly there was a place for me to escape the Eurocentrism that confronted me at every corner. You showed me humanity and the complex forms it takes when shaped by race, sex, class, and religion.

There have been many times where I’ve finished one of your novels and contemplated giving up my own desire to be a writer. I mean how am I ever going to write something as intricately metaphoric as Song of Solomon, or as intensely intimate chaotic and beautiful as Tar Baby, or as brilliantly symbolic as Paradise? But the brilliance of your work, both fiction and non-fiction, is that you evoke and even require that I write, that I continue to add to the cannon of African-American literature. It is you who famously said,

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” -Toni Morrison

and even though I’m convinced you’re written every book I could possibly want to read, you encourage me to explore my voice and to share my stories and, most importantly, never explain that which is already understood by those for whom I write.

Thank you for being you and for sharing your gift—we are all unworthy of it.