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.